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Wright, Sydney Edward (1914–1966)

by Tom Watson

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

Sydney Edward Wright (1914-1966), pharmaceutical chemist, was born on 3 June 1914 at Waverley, Sydney, second child of Lancashire-born parents William Alfred Wright, carpenter, and his wife Emily Jane, née Hayes. After attending Sydney Boys' High School, he was apprenticed to a pharmacist with Washington H. Soul, Pattinson & Co. In 1934 Syd completed the required two years of part-time study at the University of Sydney, winning the gold medal of the Pharmaceutical Society of New South Wales. Too young to be registered as a pharmacist, he continued at university and in 1935 gained a diploma in pharmaceutical science. Once registered, he moved to Brisbane where he taught (1938-44) pharmacy at Central Technical College and studied science at the University of Queensland (B.Sc. Hons, 1942; M.Sc., 1944; D.Sc., 1963). He lectured in chemistry at the university in 1944-46. On 16 January 1943 at the Methodist Church, Clayfield, he had married Phyllis May Edwards, also a pharmacist.

In 1946 Wright was appointed principal of the New Zealand College of Pharmacy, Wellington. Convinced that pharmacists required an education soundly based on the chemical and biological sciences, he tried to persuade members of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand and the government to replace the existing training system with a full-time university course. Unsuccessful, he returned to Australia in 1950 as senior lecturer in pharmacy at the University of Sydney (Ph.D., 1956) and was promoted to associate professor in 1956. He published his doctoral research results as The Metabolism of Cardiac Glycosides (Springfield, Illinois, 1960).

Prominent in the peace movement, Wright was a member of the executive committee of the Australian Convention on Peace and War which was held in Sydney in September 1953. In April next year he arranged an anti-war meeting at the Town Hall; speakers included (Sir) Marcus Oliphant, Canon (Bishop) E. J. Davidson and professors Alan Stout and Julius Stone. Wright was censured by the university's administration for hosting a reception in September for two peace activists, Josef Hromadka and Kathleen Lonsdale, on the premises of the Sydney University Union.

Wright pressed for a professional qualification for pharmacists in New South Wales, and for a research school to provide postgraduate degrees and diplomas. Due to his reputation as a left-winger, his first application for an entry visa to the United States of America had been refused, but in 1956 he was permitted to travel there; he also visited Europe to evaluate curricula and design a course suitable for Australians. The first students in a full-time, three-year degree course in pharmacy were enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1960; that year Wright became professor of pharmaceutical chemistry.

Although he continued to pursue his research interests—including the metabolism of food additives, especially dyes and antioxidants—Wright's main concern remained the promotion of professional pharmacy. In 1952-66 he was a member of the Pharmacy Board of New South Wales and the council of the Pharmaceutical Society of New South Wales. He helped to set up the New South Wales Pharmacy Research Trust in 1961 to provide research equipment, and stipends and conference expenses for postgraduate students. He sat on various panels: the State poisons advisory committee, the poisons schedule and food additives committees of the National Health and Medical Research Council, a group revising the British Pharmacopoeia, and the Commonwealth Department of Health's therapeutic substances standards committee. Revitalizing the pharmaceutical science section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, he had served as president at the Melbourne meeting in 1955.

In 1962 Wright helped to organize 'ban the bomb' marches in Sydney. The minutes of the university's professorial board recorded in 1966 that 'Professor Wright had a strong sense of social responsibility, and he became associated with movements whose bona fides have been the subject of public debate; whatever may be the final verdict on such movements, Professor Wright's complete sincerity has never been in question'.

A quick thinker, Wright was strong minded, demanding, impatient, often impulsive, and intolerant of obfuscation. He was also kind, charming, generous, and occasionally stubborn. Although not an accomplished sportsman, he had the physique of a Rugby forward, and enjoyed surfing and bushwalking. Survived by his wife and their son, he died suddenly on 7 October 1966 while driving his car at Drummoyne, Sydney. He was cremated. Later that year the Pharmaceutical Society's research trust was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Haines, 'The Grains and Threepenn'orths of Pharmacy' (Kilmore, Vic, 1976)
  • R. Combes, Pharmacy in New Zealand (Auckland, NZ, 1981)
  • D. Branagan and G. Holland (eds), Ever Reaping Something New (Syd, 1985)
  • G. Haines, Pharmacy in Australia (Syd, 1988)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 29, no 6, 1966, p 165
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Tom Watson, 'Wright, Sydney Edward (1914–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-sydney-edward-12077/text21667, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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