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Fisher, Nellie Ivy (Jackie) (1907–1995)

by Ian D. Rae and Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published:

Nellie Ivy Fisher (1907–1995), industrial chemist, was born on 15 October 1907 in London, fifth of six children of Francis Frederick Fisher, master jeweller, and his wife, Mary Jane, née Davis. Educated at Paddington and Maida Vale High School (matriculating in 1924), Nellie studied chemistry at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London (BSc, 1929), where she was president (1928–29) of the Imperial College Women’s Association. She undertook a further year of postgraduate research with Harry Lister Riley, for which she received the Diploma of Imperial College.

Fisher was employed in 1930 by Photographic Plates and Paper Ltd, a division of Ilford Research Laboratories, where she was a research assistant to Dr Frances Mary Hamer. In 1934 she followed Hamer to Kodak Ltd at Harrow, where the two undertook research into the preparation and properties of cyanine dyes, the substances that provide spectral sensitivity and were important in the development of colour photography. The partnership was fruitful, resulting in several research publications and patents. As an external candidate of the University of London, Fisher completed a doctoral thesis (PhD, 1938) entitled ‘New Methods of Preparation and Some New Dyes of the Cyanine Series.’

In late 1939 Fisher accepted the invitation of C. E. Kenneth Mees, head of research with Eastman Kodak at Rochester, New York, to relocate to Australia as a specialist organic research chemist, who could provide expertise in preparing emergency quantities of spectral sensitisers in case supplies were restricted during World War II. Following a perilous wartime voyage, she reached Melbourne in February 1940. At the Abbotsford plant of Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd, she worked with the head of research, Neil ‘Blue’ Lewis, synthesising dyes and preparing ‘gelatine colour correction Wratten-type filters and safelight screens’ (Stevens 1995, 18).

Fisher gave a lecture illustrated with lantern slides to a meeting of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute in August 1944, on the subject ‘Colour in Relation to the Structure of Organic Compounds with Special Reference to the Cyanine Dyes.’ A newspaper notice of the meeting mentioned that the dyes were useful as sensitisers in aerial photography, a rare, if oblique, reference to wartime scientific work by Kodak. In 1953 Lewis addressed the institute on the science of colour photography, emphasising the contributions of Kodak and the use of modern methods of chemical analysis. Nellie Fisher had led the introduction of these techniques to Kodak’s Australian operations.

Kodak established a separate emulsion (sensitising) laboratory under Fisher’s leadership in 1948. She trained dozens of chemists, many of whom went on to senior roles in the company. When the Kodak factory was re-established on a larger site at Coburg in 1961, she supervised the establishment of the laboratory. Described by colleagues as ‘extremely gentle yet very determined and with a reputation above reproach’ (Herald Sun 1995, 53), she was thought to be the first female scientist to head a chemical laboratory in Australia. Retiring in 1962, she maintained contact with the Australian company, being a guest at retirement and other functions, and she also travelled overseas from time to time, for example in 1978 to attend the celebration of Kodak’s fifty years at Harrow.

Outside work, Fisher was always known as Jackie. She and her de facto partner, a New Zealand-born medical practitioner, William Wishart, were keen bushwalkers, often making this activity the centrepiece of holidays taken in Australia and overseas. After Wishart died in 1977, Fisher joined the Melbourne Women’s Walking Club and was an active member until failing health curtailed her activities in the early 1990s. She died on 10 August 1995 at Box Hill, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Barrett, Anne. Women at Imperial College: Past, Present and Future. London: World Scientific Publishing, 2017
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Nellie Fisher: First Woman to Head Research Lab.’ 29 August 1995, 53
  • Kinsey, Fiona. Museums Victoria. Personal communication
  • Maclaren, Charlie (née Meredith). Interview by Ian Rae, 22 January 2017
  • Mitcham, John. Interview by Ian Rae, 24 January 2017
  • Mittag, Alison Wishart. Personal communication
  • Museums Victoria. Kodak Heritage Collection
  • Rayner-Canham, Marelene, and Geoff Rayner-Canham. Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneer British Women Chemists, 1880–1949. London: Imperial College Press, 2008
  • Stevens, Sue. ‘Kodak Scientist a Woman Well Ahead of Her Time.’ Age (Melbourne), 31 August 1995, 18
  • Sutherland, Joy. Interview by Ian Rae, 30 December 2016
  • Woods, Edward. Interview by Ian Rae and Carolyn Rasmussen, 11 October 2016

Citation details

Ian D. Rae and Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Fisher, Nellie Ivy (Jackie) (1907–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fisher-nellie-ivy-jackie-29582/text36468, published online 2019, accessed online 22 September 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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