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Smith, Henry George (1852–1924)

by H. H. G. McKern

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Henry George Smith (1852-1924), chemist, was born on 26 July 1852 at Littlebourne, Kent, England, son of George Smith, plumber, and his wife Mary Ann, née Webber. He was educated at Wingham and tutored by Rev. James Midgley at Ickham, then worked as a painter, signwriter and paperhanger, and was a plumber when he married Clarissa Ann Wanstall (d.1903) on 1 November 1877 at the parish church, Folkestone. His health suffered from field service with East Kent Rifles and he was advised to migrate to a warmer climate; with their three children, the Smiths arrived in Sydney in 1883.

In 1884 Smith was appointed painter and ticketwriter to the Technological Museum, Sydney, and, becoming interested in chemistry, attended evening classes in science under W. A. Dixon, conducted by the Board of Technical Education. An outstanding student and prizewinner, he was appointed laboratory assistant in 1890 and mineralogist in 1895. He participated in the scientific investigation of the economic potential of Australian natural products (established by the curator J. H. Maiden) and published his first papers on mineralogy (1891-94).

His scientific reputation, however, was made in phytochemistry. Within this discipline Smith's name will always be linked with that of his botanical colleague R. T. Baker. In 1899 Smith was appointed assistant curator and economic chemist. His first publications in organic chemistry (with Maiden on Eucalyptus kinos) appeared in 1895; however, his long and remarkable scientific partnership with Baker, associated very largely with the chemistry and botany of Australian plants yielding volatile oils, effectively began in 1897 with the appearance of their first joint paper, on the composition of the oil of Eucalyptus piperita and the isolation of a new compound, eudesmol.

Between 1897 and 1921 Smith wrote about one hundred scientific publications, including three books with Baker—Research on the Eucalypts (1902; 2nd ed. 1920), Research on the Pines of Australia (1910) and Wood Fibres of Some Australian Timbers (1924). In their work on eucalypts and pines they controversially argued that the constancy of the oil composition of eucalypts and other genera should be given diagnostic rank with morphology in taxonomic determinations of species. Smith was also a pioneer teacher of organic chemistry which he taught for Sydney Technical College (1898-1911), conducting the classes in his own laboratory at the museum. After retiring from the museum in 1921 he joined his friend and colleague Professor John Read at the University of Sydney.

Smith was active in the affairs of scientific bodies: he was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1913), the State branch of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute (1922-23), the Sydney section of the Society of Chemical Industry (1916-17), the Sydney Technical College Chemical Society (1914) and of the chemistry section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at the 1923 meeting in Wellington, New Zealand. He was a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, a foundation member of the Australian National Research Council, and was awarded the David Syme research prize and medal by the University of Melbourne in 1922.

Somewhat below average height, Smith had a serious yet kindly face and thin beard. He was neat in dress, of retiring disposition, but quietly firm in administration, set an example in diligence and was intolerant of dilatory assistants or students. Read described him as 'quietly genial and considerate … distinguished by his modesty and sincerity'. He married a widow Margaret Gardner Parr, née Grimmond, at the Independent Church, Collins Street, Melbourne, on 22 October 1906. Smith died of heart disease at his Roseville home on 19 September 1924, and was buried with Congregational forms in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. His wife and three sons of his first marriage survived him; a daughter had died in childhood. In his honour the Royal Australian Chemical Institute in 1927 established the H. G. Smith memorial medal for meritorious work in chemistry.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Read, An Australian Pioneer of Organic Chemistry. Nineteenth Streatfeild Memorial Lecture, Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland (Lond, 1936)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, A Century of Scientific Progress, the Centenary Volume of the Royal Society of New South Wales (Syd, 1968), and Journal and Proceedings, 59, 1925, p 11, 98, 1965, p 1
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 27, no 7, July 1960, p 309
  • Journal of the Chemical Society (London), vol 127, 1925, p 958
  • Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd, Endeavour, 3, no 10, Apr 1944, p 47
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sept 1924
  • J. L. Willis, From Palace to Power House. The First One Hundred Years of the Sydney Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (typescript, 1982, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Library).

Citation details

H. H. G. McKern, 'Smith, Henry George (1852–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-henry-george-8471/text14897, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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