Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilfrid Dinsey Chapman (1891–1955)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published:

Wilfrid Dinsey Chapman (1891-1955), engineer, was born on 16 May 1891 at Wandsworth, London, son of Frederick Chapman, a geologist's assistant, and his wife Helen Mary, née Dancer. In 1902 the family came to Australia where Frederick took up his appointment as palaeontologist at the National Museum, Melbourne. Educated at Camberwell Grammar School, where he was dux, Wilfrid joined the railway construction branch of the Board of Land and Works as a junior. For six years he worked as an engineering-assistant and a resident engineer, mainly in the country.

On 7 June 1915 Chapman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served with the 1st Australian General Hospital in Egypt and France. Commissioned on 29 September 1917, he was posted to the 7th Machine-Gun Company and saw action in France next year. In April 1919 he returned to Australia and his appointment terminated on 31 July. At the Collins Street Independent Church, Melbourne, on 13 December that year he married Marea Feori Anastasia Maniachi with Congregational forms.

Re-employed by the railway construction branch, Chapman was given time off to attend lectures at the University of Melbourne (B.C.E., 1923; M.C.E., 1925). Meanwhile, as assistant-engineer and engineer, he designed and constructed railways and bridges. He made his name as a pioneer in the use of electric arc welding for structural purposes, notably in widening and strengthening the rail-and-road bridge over the Murray River at Echuca in 1924.

In 1931 Chapman joined E.M.F. Electric Co. Pty Ltd as engineer in charge of research and development. He made significant advances in the theory and practice of electric welding, and did much to spread knowledge of the new technology among practising engineers. In 1936 he moved to Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd as engineer for development and research. His investigations which preceded the establishment of the pulp-mill at Maryvale took him to various parts of Gippsland and stimulated his interest in the region's hardwoods, on which, like his father, he was already something of an authority.

When war broke out in 1939 Chapman was with the machinery firm of Malcolm Moore Ltd. Called up for part-time duty on 1 January 1940, he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force in May. From that month, as lieutenant colonel, he commanded the 2nd/2nd Army Field Workshop which he took to Palestine. In November he became chief ordnance mechanical engineer at headquarters, I Corps, and later—as colonel—held the same post at A.I.F. Headquarters. He made some important innovations in the design of mobile workshops and was mentioned in dispatches. After he returned to Australia in May 1942, he was posted to Land Headquarters, Melbourne, as inspector of workshop services. In January 1943 he was made chief superintendent of design. Promoted temporary brigadier in August, he led a team of experts to New Guinea to investigate the effect of tropical conditions on equipment designed for temperate zones, a mission which led to major improvements for the allied armies. In November 1945 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers as an honorary brigadier and in 1946 joined the Commonwealth Department of Transport as director of civil engineering in the railway standardization division. He had been a part-time commissioner for the State Electricity Commission of Victoria since 1944 and retained that position until his death.

A founding associate-member (1920) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and a member from 1930, Chapman was chairman (1932) of the Melbourne division. In 1934 he wrote a seminal and widely discussed paper, 'The Future of the Engineering Profession', which advocated true professionalism based on formal tuition and study, and criticized systems such as that under which he had received early training in the field. The paper pointed to the need for the institution to control 'all matters pertaining to the profession', and to foresee and meet changing conditions. A councillor (1933-55) and president (1944-45) of the institution, in 1949 Chapman was one of three distinguished engineers upon whom the University of Western Australia conferred a doctorate of engineering honoris causa—a distinction in which he took such pride that he thereafter styled himself Dr Chapman.

From 1946 he had been vice-chairman of the Standards Association, on which he was the institution's representative. A member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London), he sat on its local advisory committee in Melbourne; he was also a member (1935-39) of the faculty of engineering at the University of Melbourne and represented engineering graduates on the standing committee of convocation. He was active in the Australian National Research Council and in the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. A member (from 1938) of the board of management of the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg, he took a special interest in its grounds.

Chapman died of hypertensive cerebrovascular disease on 6 May 1955 at Mount St Evin's hospital, Fitzroy; survived by his wife and son, he was buried in Coburg cemetery. Delivering the inaugural W. D. Chapman Memorial Oration in 1959 for the Victorian division of the Institution of Engineers, Sir Edmund Herring described him as 'a great and good man, who was an outstanding engineer, a fine soldier . . . and with it all a humble man, beloved of his fellows'. Other memorials include an annual award given by the Welding Technology Institute of Australia, and the Bogong gum, named Eucalyptus chapmaniana in 1947 after he had drawn attention to its existence.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Edwards, Brown Power (Melb, 1969)
  • A. H. Corbett, The Institution of Engineers, Australia (Syd, 1973)
  • I. V. Hansen, By Their Deeds (Melb, 1986)
  • Victorian Naturalist, 64 (1947-48), p 52
  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, 27, 1955, p 98, 31, 1959, p 77
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, June 1955, p 33.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Chapman, Wilfrid Dinsey (1891–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 May, 1891
London, Middlesex, England


6 May, 1955 (aged 63)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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