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Auguste Joseph François de Bavay (1856–1944)

by George Parsons

This article was published:

Auguste Joseph François de Bavay (1856-1944), brewer, chemist, bacteriologist and metallurgist, was born on 9 June 1856 at Vilvoorde, Belgium, son of Xavier de Bavay, whose family can be traced to at least 1193, and his wife Marie Thérèse née de Bontridder. Auguste was educated at college in Namur, graduating as a surveyor in 1873. After further education at Gembloux, he worked as a brewer and chemist, establishing links with Louis Pasteur and others active in research in France and Belgium. Opportunities in Europe did not offer de Bavay the recognition and remuneration he required; in the late 1870s he left Belgium to become a plantation manager in Ceylon.

In March 1884 de Bavay arrived in Melbourne to take up the position of brewer with T. and A. Aitken's Victoria Parade brewery and distillery; his salary was £6 a week with a commission of 1s. on every hogshead of good beer. On 21 March 1885 at St Patrick's Cathedral, he married Anna Heinzle, German-born daughter of a furniture warehouseman.

In the 1880s, the top fermentation process was the only one available to colonial brewers. De Bavay, well aware of the importance of yeast in the process, began searching for a way of avoiding wild yeasts which caused unwanted secondary and tertiary fermentations. His first breakthrough came late in 1884. In that year the Dane, E. C. Hansen, published evidence showing that only the use of pure cultures would guarantee success. De Bavay now attempted to grow pure yeast cultures. C. W. Chateau Müller of Terry's West End brewery was also using Hansen's researches and by 1887-88 both chemists reported considerable success. De Bavay, however, soon became the Australian expert on yeasts, receiving Hansen's congratulations for his discovery of an Australian wild yeast, which the Dane named S. de Bavii in his honour. Then in 1888 de Bavay developed 'Australian No.2', the first pure yeast used commercially in Australia and possibly the world's first pure culture ever used in top fermentation brewing. He followed this in 1889 with 'Melbourne No.1', which became the basis of colonial and Australian brewing: de Bavay had succeeded in producing a peculiarly Australian beer, establishing Melbourne at the forefront of brewing technology. He was now in demand as a teacher, his most famous pupil probably being John Breheny.

The problems of top fermentation brewing encouraged de Bavay to explore the possibilities of lager-brewing. It was not until the late 1880s that inventions in ice-making technology encouraged entrepreneurs to enter the lucrative Melbourne market. The most successful were W. M. and R. Foster from New York, who built a large brewery in Collingwood in 1888. De Bavay's reputation and his interest in lager were known to Montague Cohen, a director of Fosters, who in 1894 persuaded de Bavay to join the company as chief brewer. It was a shrewd move. By 1895 de Bavay had greatly increased production and had also developed a trade in draught beer which gave Fosters over forty outlets in Melbourne's city and suburbs.

By the late 1890s de Bavay had been converted away from the traditional Australian ale he had helped to create and in 1898 he engaged in a bitter newspaper dispute with Emil Resch in which he defended the superiority of 'malt and hops' beer over 'sugar' beer. It was a surprising volte-face for the man who had so proudly sent three hogsheads of his running ales to the London brewers' annual exhibition in 1889. He also turned his attention to wine, establishing a vineyard at Woori Yallock in 1897 in partnership with Cohen.

De Bavay regarded himself as primarily a bacteriologist. In 1889 his charge that the city's fire-plugs admitted sewerage and typhoid germs to the domestic water-supply resulted in a royal commission and the eventual removal of the devices; the purity of the city's drinking water improved markedly and de Bavay was a popular hero. He believed that he had discovered a cure for typhoid and diphtheria and in 1891 presented a paper on the subject to the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association. Later that year while on a six-month sabbatical he visited Pasteur's laboratories in France and was presented with a bottle of the first anti-toxin against diphtheria, which he donated to the Melbourne Hospital. He had cultivated strong links with Victorian hospitals and the University of Melbourne, and acted as bacteriologist for the university until Thomas Cherry's appointment as lecturer in 1900.

De Bavay turned his attention to the technological problems of mining at Broken Hill, especially the difficulties of ore extraction. In his search for a new method to recover zinc blende, he became involved in the bitter struggle between C. V. Potter and G. Delprat but by July 1904 he had evolved his own process. Working in his laboratory at Fosters, and with the encouragement of Cohen and W. L. Baillieu, de Bavay discovered the skin or film flotation process; its major difficulty was that a huge surface of water was required to ensure a large output.

In 1904, in partnership with Cohen and Baillieu, he formed de Bavay's Sulphide Process Co. Ltd; in September 1905 a new company was formed, de Bavay's Treatment Co. Ltd; in October 1908 he was paid £6583 in cash and shares for his five patents dealing with extraction of zinc blende; and in 1909 Amalgamated Zinc (de Bavay's) Ltd was established to exploit the process. He was the inventor but Baillieu was the entrepreneur who made a fortune; in his hands the company prospered.

In 1900 de Bavay had signed a long-term contract with Fosters, but he also acted as consultant for the Swan Brewery in Western Australia, the Cascade Brewery in Tasmania and after 1907, Carlton and United Breweries—all Cohen and Baillieu interests. At the outbreak of World War I de Bavay was asked by Senator Pearce, minister of defence, to investigate the possibility of manufacturing acetone for use in producing cordite. Within two weeks he had developed a process based on the fermentation and distillation of molasses, and as a result was asked to design and build the Commonwealth Acetate of Lime Factory on the Brisbane River. His son John Francis Xavier assisted him in this task. De Bavay made no money from his invention; it was, he claimed, his gift to the Commonwealth.

After the war de Bavay continued to act as a consulting brewer. He maintained his experiments in bacteriology and pursued metallurgical studies and research into the wine industry. He had also been involved from 1904 in the foundation of an Australian paper industry.

De Bavay had a lifelong passion for the genealogy of his family. He enjoyed tennis and shooting and one of his great pleasures in life was cigar-smoking. His wife died on 29 October 1933. De Bavay died at his home in Studley Park Road, Kew, on 16 November 1944 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by two sons, both of whom worked in the brewing industry, and by two daughters.

De Bavay was naturalized in November 1902. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1918 and also won Papal and Belgian honours. His contribution to Australian life was great, yet he was never well known. His reputation as a scientist and the esteem of his colleagues concerned him more than the pursuit of fame or material possessions.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Lyng, Non-Britishers in Australia (Melb, 1927)
  • G. Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1963)
  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

George Parsons, 'de Bavay, Auguste Joseph François (1856–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • de Bavay, Auguste Joseph Francois

9 June, 1856
Vilvoorde, Belgium


16 November, 1944 (aged 88)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.