Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ritchie, Ernest (1917–1976)

by H. G. Holland

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Ernest Ritchie (1917-1976), organic chemist, was born on 11 February 1917 at Waverley, Sydney, third child of Thomas Wallace Ritchie, a railway guard from Scotland, and his native-born wife Myra Florence Charlotte, née Calf. Ern attended Woollahra Public, Randwick Intermediate and Sydney Boys' High schools. In 1933 he entered the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1937; M.Sc., 1939; D.Sc., 1954) where he graduated with first-class honours in general and inorganic chemistry, and won a Blue for Rugby Union football. He belonged to a group that included John Cornforth, Arthur Birch, Rita Harradence and (Sir) Ronald Nyholm, all of whom were to make outstanding contributions to chemical research.

On graduation Ritchie joined the staff of the university as a demonstrator and pursued research in synthetic organic chemistry with Francis Lions. Promoted lecturer (1941) and senior lecturer (1946), he was a stimulating and methodical teacher, 'often speaking without notes'. At the district registrar's office, Waverley, on 7 February 1945 he married Mary Euphemia ('Maisie') Smith.

In 1948 Ritchie embarked on the chemical characterization of Australian plant constituents, including alkaloids, pigments, resins and volatile oils. His first project concerned the pigment class, anthocyanins, which were detected in the fruits and flowers of some three hundred Australian and New Guinean species. The broad phytochemical programme was carried on in partnership successively with G. K. Hughes and W. C. Taylor, and involved numerous collecting-expeditions to tropical rain-forests with botanists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. One consignment of collected bark weighed 727 lb. (330 kg).

The attempted elucidation of 'biogenesis'—the elaborate chemical pathways believed to operate in living plants—was a topic widely discussed. This field of research, pioneered by (Sir) Robert Robinson, inaugural professor (1912-15) of organic chemistry at the University of Sydney, became one of Ritchie's interests. Of his many investigations, a decade-long study of alkaloids derived from the Queensland genus, Galbulimima, was accorded much praise.

Ritchie's record of fostering high achievement in many of his former research students matched his success as an investigator. He rose to become professor of organic chemistry (1967) and head (1971-72) of the (combined) school of chemistry. On leave, he was twice a research fellow at the University of Oxford: in 1954-55 with Robinson, and in 1970 investigating microbiological chemistry. Unassuming in manner, Ritchie was enthusiastic, cheerful and given to understatement. He was respected as an academic administrator, a role he played reluctantly but effectively. In public and in committee he 'was terse and to the point'. Under his leadership the department of organic chemistry enhanced its reputation for research and received increased grants. As head of school he introduced new committee structures which allowed academic and non-academic members of staff from all levels to participate in policy-making.

His work attracted international recognition. Ritchie was awarded the Edgeworth David medal (1948) by the Royal Society of New South Wales and the H. G. Smith memorial medal (1963) by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. In 1963 he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. His publications included 146 research articles and two book-chapters, covering not only natural-product chemistry but also synthetic and mechanistic chemistry. He belonged to the R.S.N.S.W., helped to found (1965) the Australian Journal of Chemistry and served as a member of its advisory committee.

A 'congenial companion with a dry sense of humour and simple tastes', Ritchie 'liked his beer', 'rolled his own cigarettes', and enjoyed gardening, fishing, reading, and listening to music. He died suddenly of coronary thrombosis on 9 April 1976 at his Roseville home and was cremated; his wife, and their daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Sydney, Gazette, July 1976, p 22
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 3, no 3/4, Nov 1977, p 111
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1939, 7 May 1946, 10 Mar 1954, 22 Mar 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

H. G. Holland, 'Ritchie, Ernest (1917–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ritchie-ernest-11531/text20571, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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