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Penman, Frank (1905–1973)

by John P. Lonergan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Frank Penman (1905-1973), chemist, was born on 20 March 1905 at Collingwood, Melbourne, second of six children of Australian-born parents George Alexander Penman, clerk, and his wife Myra Sidonia, née Cox. Educated at Scotch College (dux 1922) and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1926; M.Sc., 1927), Frank won numerous prizes and scholarships. On 13 May 1927 he joined the Victorian Department of Agriculture as an assistant research chemist. He built his reputation in hydrology and soils. In 1933 he was awarded the Rennie medal by the Australian Chemical Institute, of which he was elected a fellow (1945).

On 25 April 1931 at Chalmers Presbyterian Church, Auburn, Penman had married Mary Rorke. Mary later fell chronically ill and became drug-dependent, causing them many years of distress: eventually they divorced. Penman was seconded to the Commonwealth Department of Munitions in 1940 and sent to North America in the following year to study the manufacture of explosives. His experience helped in establishing an explosives factory at Mulwala, New South Wales. Recalled to the Department of Agriculture in 1945, he assisted in implementing the soldier-settlement scheme by identifying land suitable for irrigated cropping. In 1948 he was promoted deputy chief chemist.

Penman was appointed chief irrigation officer in the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission on 10 February 1950. Within seven months he moved to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization to superintend viticultural and citrus work at research stations at Merbein, Victoria (1950), and Griffith, New South Wales (1954). Developing a rapport with local growers, he advised them on soil analysis, salinity, irrigation, drainage, plant nutrition, and chemicals. He was made chief research officer in 1954. His publications, mostly practical, dated from 1929 and included articles in the C.S.I.R.O. Bulletin and the Journal of the Department of Agriculture of Victoria.

In the late 1950s Penman's relations with some of his colleagues deteriorated. Although the C.S.I.R.O. gradually shifted the focus of its primary-industry research from regional to national problems, he did not allow Merbein to follow this trend. Strongly committed to local tasks, he was overworked, and exhausted by his wife's illness. Formal complaints were made about his management methods and alleged indifference to long-term research. The C.S.I.R.O.'s executive failed to give him timely guidance and transferred him on 14 April 1961 to head office, Melbourne, to assist 'in the formulation of policies particularly in relation to irrigation research'. At St Andrew's Church, Gardiner, on 7 August 1964 he married Emily Gwen Prosser, née Schmidt, a 48-year-old divorcee.

Five ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall and robust in build, Penman had a ruddy complexion and curly reddish-grey hair. He was variously seen as decent, companionable and affable, albeit 'a very private person . . . [due to] some deep tragedy in his family life'. While he was a successful practical scientist, he never attained as a research leader the heights foreshadowed by his early academic performance. He retired in 1970. Survived by his wife, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died of bronchopneumonia on 22 March 1973 at South Melbourne and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Aqua, May 1950
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Aug 1956
  • CSIRO Archives, Canberra, series 3, PH/PEN/6, 6A and 6B
  • private information.

Citation details

John P. Lonergan, 'Penman, Frank (1905–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/penman-frank-11364/text20301, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 June 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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