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John Campbell Earl (1890–1978)

by D. J. Brown

This article was published:

John Campbell Earl (1890-1978), chemist, was born on 18 May 1890 in North Adelaide, son of Robert Campbell Earl (d.1895), civil servant, and his wife Elizabeth Mortlock, née Lucas (d.1901). John attended primary school in Adelaide. When his parents died, he was sent to England for further education at Great Yarmouth Grammar School. After studying chemistry at the City and Guilds Technical College, Finsbury, London, he was employed from 1911 at the Imperial Institute, South Kensington. In 1913 he returned to South Australia where he was assistant government analyst (1915-17) and entered the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1921; D.Sc., 1926). Answering a call in 1917 for qualified chemists to staff explosive factories in Britain, he was stationed at Gretna, Scotland, before transferring to a research unit at the University of St Andrews (Ph.D., 1920; D.Sc., 1949). In 1922 he accepted a lectureship at the University of Sydney; six years later he was appointed to the chair of organic chemistry.

During the 1930s Earl investigated aliphatic nitroso compounds and discovered a new class of cyclic compounds which he named sydnones. In 1935 he published his findings in the Journal of the Chemical Society and was awarded the H. G. Smith medal by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. At St Augustine's Anglican Church, Neutral Bay, on 8 September 1938 he married Winifred Kate Vincent Jones; they were to remain childless. That year he was elected president of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Late in 1939 Earl began to focus his department's research on government-assisted projects related to defence. He undertook urgent investigations as diverse as the pilot-scale preparation of the antiseptic, proflavine, for war wounds, the large-scale preparation of British Anti-Lewisite (the only effective antidote for the chemical warfare agent, lewisite), the formulation of coloured smokes for effective signalling under jungle conditions, the industrial production of dimethylaniline for conversion into the essential explosive, tetryl, and the development of a practical dye-line process for the rapid reproduction of maps and machine drawings. In recognition of his work he was appointed a life member of the Society of Chemical Industry, London.

Earl was a highly effective supervisor of honours students, in whom he instilled habits of clear thinking, hard work and persistence. Although he was invariably considerate and helpful to co-workers, he held unusually firm and unconventional ideas on how to run a university. Recurrent disagreements with successive vice-chancellors and even with many of his colleagues in other science departments induced him to take early retirement in 1947. With his wife, he settled at Thurlton, Norfolk, England. Earl maintained his scientific interests at City College, Norwich, as a consultant to a local malting establishment and as a specialist editor for British Chemical Abstracts.

A small, kindly and basically cheerful man, with exceptionally bright eyes and a nice sense of humour, Earl was a good conversationalist on almost any subject. He was particularly fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and of the works of C. J. Dennis. Reasonably proficient in German, he assisted some scientists who had come to Australia as refugees from Hitler's regime. When Winifred died in 1967, Earl returned to Adelaide. He spent much of his time at the university, was acting-master (1969-70) of Kathleen Lumley College, attended symposia and published occasional papers. He died on Christmas Day 1978 in Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 15 Mar 1928, p 270
  • Chemistry and Industry (London), 7 Mar 1953, p 204
  • Chemistry in Australia, 45, no 4, Apr 1978, p 92, 46, no 5, May 1979, p 219
  • Chemistry in Britain, 17, no 1, Jan 1981, p 30
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Mar 1928, 23 Dec 1933, 21 Nov 1935, 14 May 1938
  • John Campbell Earl's talk on ABC radio station 2FC, 11 Feb 1945 (ABC Archives, Sydney).

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Citation details

D. J. Brown, 'Earl, John Campbell (1890–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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