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Wilsmore, Norman Thomas Mortimer (1868–1940)

by B. K. De Garis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Norman Thomas Mortimer Wilsmore (1868-1940), professor of chemistry, was born on 23 January 1868 at Williamstown, Melbourne, only child of English parents Thomas Wilsmore, solicitor, and his wife Marianne Maria, née Norman. After being dux at Caulfield Grammar School, in 1887 Norman entered the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1890; M.Sc., 1893). On 28 June 1894 at St John's Anglican Church, Camberwell, he married Leonora Jessie Little, the first woman science graduate of the university.

For three years he did research in London under Professor Sir William Ramsay and Norman Collie; in 1897-1901 he worked with Professor Walther Nernst at the Georg-August University of Göttingen, Germany, and in 1901-02 assisted Professor Richard Lorenz at the Federal Polytechnic, Zurich, Switzerland. Wilsmore published an important paper on electrode potentials and in 1903 returned to University College, London, as Ramsay's assistant in inorganic chemistry and, later, his assistant-professor. In 1907 Wilsmore was a co-discoverer of keten, a new organic compound, and received his D.Sc. from the University of Melbourne; in the fields of electrode potentials and keten chemistry he demonstrated a brilliant mind.

In 1913 Wilsmore took up the foundation chair of chemistry at the new University of Western Australia; his department was housed in a wood and iron structure that had been transferred from the goldfields and re-erected in Irwin Street, Perth. During the early years he had little equipment and no assistants.

Becoming an honorary director of the War Munitions Supply Co. Ltd of Western Australia in September 1915, he undertook war work in the British Department of Explosives Supply in 1917-18. He returned to Perth in 1919 and concentrated on teaching and administration. While 'Willie' never awarded a first-class honours degree, his second-class graduates were welcomed by other chemistry schools. He served six terms as dean of science, was a member of the university senate (1916-22) and vice-chancellor in 1924-25. Twice president of the State committee of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, Wilsmore was president of its council (1937); a member of the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, he was an original fellow and vice-president (1933-34) of the Australian National Research Council; he was also a fellow of the (Royal) Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland.

His last years in the university were unhappy. Despite his shyness, Wilsmore had a caustic tongue and quarrelled bitterly with Vice-Chancellor Whitfeld and others over the design of a new science building on the Crawley campus. When a plan showed a lavatory beside his main lecture theatre, the professor exploded: 'I have no intention of lecturing to an obligato of flushing cisterns'. He demanded that lower priority be given to aesthetic features in order to save money for equipping the laboratories. On losing the argument, he refused to help in planning the building and did not attend its opening. Slight and spare, of less than middle height, Wilsmore was severely myopic, with pale blue eyes, white hair and beard. When he finally retired in 1937 he declined the title emeritus because its dictionary definition included 'having become unfit for service; worn out'. He became a consultant to the local chemical firm Plaimar Ltd. Survived by his wife and son, he died on 12 June 1940 at Claremont, Perth, and was cremated. He is commemorated by the Wilsmore prize for chemistry.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 3, 1940, p 31
  • Journal of the Chemical Society (Lond), 1940-41, p 59
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, Jan 1958
  • N. S. Bayliss, The Chemistry School, University of Western Australia (manuscript, 1988, School of Chemistry, University of Western Australia)
  • N. S. Bayliss, Reminiscences. The School of Chemistry, University of Western Australia, 1913-1970 (manuscript, University of Western Australia Archives)
  • Registrar's office file 986 and UWAA files 0287, 0433, 0434 (University of Western Australia Archives).

Citation details

B. K. De Garis, 'Wilsmore, Norman Thomas Mortimer (1868–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilsmore-norman-thomas-mortimer-9130/text16105, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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