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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Phillips, Leslie William (1893–1949)

by Wendy Birman

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

Leslie William Phillips (1893-1949), chemist and educationist, was born on 15 April 1893 at Tungamah, Victoria, sixth child of Victorian-born parents William Henry Phillips, baker, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Clark. Leslie was educated at Melbourne High School, the Teachers' Training College and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1920; Dip.Ed., 1920; M.Sc., 1923; M.Ed., 1938). On 14 April 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served with medical units in England (1915-18) and with the 2nd Field Ambulance in France (1918). Promoted sergeant in 1917 and commended for his services in the following year, he was discharged from the A.I.F. on 24 June 1919 in Melbourne. He taught in turn at Hamilton High and Footscray Technical schools. In 1920 he took the post of assistant-lecturer in chemistry at Perth Technical School (College).

At Wesley Church, Perth, on 12 July 1921 Phillips married with Methodist forms Mary Matilda Read, a 26-year-old schoolteacher; they were to remain childless. While at the technical school he received a grant from the Australian Science and Industrial Endowment Fund to investigate toxic principles in common poison plants. In 1929 the Department of Education appointed him assistant-superintendent of technical education in Western Australia. Responsible for co-ordinating studies, organization and discipline, he was 'on duty day and night as required'. He continued to maintain his interest in science: he was foundation secretary of the Western Australian committee of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and president of the Royal Society of Western Australia (1931-32) and the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute (1943).

Phillips gave occasional lectures in chemistry and education at the University of Western Australia. Supported by the vice-chancellor H. E. Whitfeld, he received a Carnegie Foundation fellowship in 1935 to study at the Institute of Education, University of London. While in England, he visited technical institutions, and investigated legislative and administrative developments in vocational training. Back in Perth, he told the 1937-38 royal commission on youth employment and the apprenticeship system that Perth Technical College was so hampered by inadequate funding and cramped facilities that basement storerooms, photographic darkrooms and even a 'washing room' were used for classes. He welcomed the commission's recommendation that a bureau of industry and economic research be established, but was frustrated when an enabling bill was blocked in the Legislative Council.

In 1941 Phillips was promoted superintendent of technical education. For the next eight years he endeavoured to close the gap between industry and education. Against formidable opposition from trade unions and employers, he advocated formal teacher-training for trade instructors, and the provision of advanced technological, administrative and managerial courses. During World War II he advised the armed services on technical education and helped to administer the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme in Western Australia. With K. S. Cunningham he wrote Education for Livelihood (Melbourne, 1946).

A conscientious and unassuming man who shunned publicity, Phillips was a prominent member of the Perth Legacy Club (president 1941-42), the State School Teachers' Union of Western Australia and the Australian Council for Educational Research. Survived by his wife, he died of coronary vascular disease on 10 May 1949 at his Mount Lawley home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. P. Dunne, I Will Arise (Perth, 1976)
  • M. A. White and W. Birman, 'The Apprenticeship Training System in Western Australia: A History', in S. Murray-Smith (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education, 1981 (Melb, 1981)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 2, no 2, 21 Oct 1949, p 68
  • West Australian, 11 May 1949
  • Phillips file, AN 45/5, Acc 1059, file 904/40 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Phillips, Leslie William (1893–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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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