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Becher, Robert Gordon (Bob) (1913–1997)

by Steve Errington

This article was published online in 2022

Robert Gordon Becher (1913-1997), industrial chemist, was born on 11 December 1913 at Morchard, South Australia, youngest of six children of Victorian-born Cecil Robert Becher, station manager, and his New South Wales-born wife Mabel Anna, née Wooldridge. In 1914 the family moved to South Perth in Western Australia. After his father’s death in 1925, his mother took in boarders. Financially assisted by a family friend, Bob attended the High School, Perth, until the age of fourteen.

In January 1929 Becher found work as a ‘lab boy’ at the Tannin Extract Laboratory on the University of Western Australia’s Crawley campus—a joint project between the university, the State Forests Department, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Here tanning materials were extracted from the bark of hardwoods for testing. In June 1930 the plant was closed, and the equipment sold to the manufacturing chemists Plaimar Ltd of West Perth. Without employment, Becher tramped to find jobs on farms, sometimes working for just food and shelter. In 1932 he joined the Belmont factory of Plaimar’s subsidiary, Braddock Essential Oil Co. Ltd. He began as a laboratory assistant and later became a shift boss.

Becher had a self-confessed difficulty with passing English examinations, but took night classes at Perth Technical College to complete a diploma in pure chemistry in 1936. During this period Plaimar formed Industrial Extracts Ltd and began marketing its tanning extract as ‘Myrtan.’ In 1937 Becher was sent as works manager to a half-built factory at Boddington that was to produce Myrtan by extracting tannic acid from logs of wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo). At St Mary’s Church of England, West Perth, on 8 June 1940 he married Edna May Farmer, a Boddington resident, and they settled at Ranford, the company town of Industrial Extracts.

On 13 July 1942 Becher enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces for service in World War II. Transferred to the Australian Imperial Force later that month, he was appointed as a lieutenant, Royal Australian Engineers. He served at home with the 22nd Army Field (later 22nd Field) Company, and spent six months in Borneo (1945) with the 1st Port Construction Company. In June 1946 his appointment was terminated, and he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. Returning to Plaimar, he was given the task of re-establishing a Western Australian eucalyptus oil industry by surveying tree species in the Mid West region. He and a colleague distilled samples in camp at night and identified oil mallee (Eucalyptus kochii) as producing a high yield of good oil. A distillery erected at Pindar, however, was not successful.

By the mid-1950s Becher had joined the State public service as a research scientist, first with the Department of Industrial Development (DID) and then with Government Chemical Laboratories (GCL) in the Department of Mines. While based at DID, he conceived a simple and inexpensive means of reducing the iron oxide content in ilmenite to produce synthetic rutile, a premium product. Initially unsupported by the department, he patented (1963) the invention at his own expense. After further development with his GCL colleagues (published in 1965), and the recognition that followed, he transferred the patent to the Western Australian government. The second of his two-part procedure—an accelerated rusting process—became known as the Becher process. His innovation would revolutionise mineral sands processing in the State, turning it into a major export industry.

In 1968 Becher left GCL to join Midland Brick Co. Pty Ltd as its research and quality manager. There he solved the problem of discoloured cream bricks by incorporating white granulated sugar into the brickmaking process, a method still used. He retired in 1979. Made a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute in 1978, he was awarded the Alton McAllan Batty medal of the Western Australian branch in 1980. He was appointed AM in 1988 and presented with the Clunies Ross medal by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering in 1992. The next year Murdoch University awarded him an honorary doctorate of science. In November 1996 the State’s mineral processing laboratory on the Curtin University campus was named the R. G. Becher Building in honour of the one-time ‘lab boy.’

Survived by his wife and their two daughters, Bob Becher died of mesothelioma on 27 September 1997 in Perth and was cremated. He was recalled as a ‘gregarious and loquacious companion’ (McIlwraith 1997, 14) who was never short of a new idea and who encouraged others, as he put it, to ‘mentally tread where no human mind has trod before’ (Lau and Paxman 2014, 43).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bear, I. J., T. Biegler, and T. R. Scott. Alumina to Zirconia: The History of the CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry. Clayton, Vic.: CSIRO Publishing, 2001
  • Becher, Robert. Personal communication, 27 August 1991
  • Goodheart, B. ‘Dr Robert Gordon Becher, AM, FRACI 1913-1997.’ Chemistry in Australia, December 1997, 25
  • Haleian Magazine. ‘Who Is Bob Becher.’ 24, no. 1 (June 2012): 28
  • Lau, Sarah, and Cassie Paxman. ‘Exceptional Innovator Honoured 100 Years On.’ Chemistry in Australia, July 2014, 43
  • Malkovic, Tony. ‘The Metallurgist Who Cared about the Environment.’ Department of Commerce, Government of Western Australia, 2013. Accessed 8 October 2021. https://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/atoms/files/8.2-metallurist-who-cared-case-study-2-published-version.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • Malkovic, Tony. ‘A Public Sector Innovator with a Billion Dollar Idea.’ Department of Commerce, Government of Western Australia, 2013. Accessed 8 September 2021. https://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/atoms/files/8.1-ps-innovator-case-study-1-published-version.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • May, Mardi. Bricks and Mortar: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Midland Brick. Shenton Park, WA: Dragon International Publishing, 1996
  • McIlwraith, John. ‘Scientist Gave Nation Mineral Wealth.’ Australian, 22 October 1997, 14
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX28460
  • Rovis-Hermann, Lynda. ‘No WA Compo for Condemned Boffin.’ Sunday Times (Perth), 17 August 1997, 13

Additional Resources

Citation details

Steve Errington, 'Becher, Robert Gordon (Bob) (1913–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/becher-robert-gordon-bob-32140/text39715, published online 2022, accessed online 9 December 2022.

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