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Ernst Johannes Hartung (1893–1979)

by L. W. Weickhardt

This article was published:

Ernst Johannes Hartung (1893-1979), by unknown photographer, 1940-42

Ernst Johannes Hartung (1893-1979), by unknown photographer, 1940-42

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1473

Ernst Johannes Hartung (1893-1979), professor of chemistry and astronomer, was born on 23 April 1893 at Caulfield, Melbourne, second son of five children of Carl August Ernst Hartung, musician, and his wife Ida Emilie, née Hagenauer. Carl had come to Melbourne from Leipzig, Germany, after fighting in the Franco-Prussian war. His wife was the Victorian-born daughter of F. A. Hagenauer, a Moravian missionary.

Ernst was educated at Wesley College, a school which had produced Walter Rosenhain, (Sir) David Rivett and William Sutherland, all of whom became distinguished scientists. At the University of Melbourne, Hartung graduated (B.Sc., 1913; D.Sc., 1919) with first-class honours, and won the Dixson, Kernot and Wyselaskie scholarships. In 1919 he was appointed to a lectureship at the university. World War I had denied him an opportunity to undertake postgraduate studies in Britain or Europe, but in 1922 (Sir) David Masson and Rivett enabled him to spend twelve months on salary at University College, London. On 25 November that year he married Gladys Gray at the register office, St Giles.

Throughout his long career Hartung was enthralled by light and colour in all their manifestations. Like the Greeks, 'he had the genius to be astonished'. His love of the Australian bushland, first developed on boyhood holidays at Ramahyuck, an Aboriginal reserve in Gippsland founded by his grandfather, and also at Strathfieldsaye, the home of his cousin Clive Disher, was intensified by family friendships with J. W. Lindt, whose mastery of the photography of forest scenes at Narbethong he strove to emulate. In 1926 Hartung's research on the photo-decomposition of silver halides was awarded the David Syme prize. Demonstrating chemical phenomena to large undergraduate classes, Hartung developed to a high degree the use of screen projections and published The Screen Projection of Chemical Experiments (1953). In 1935 he achieved an ambition to record the various forms of Brownian movement in colloidal solution on 35 mm cinefilm, which was copied, with permission, by the Eastman Kodak Co. onto 16 mm film for its World Science Library.

In 1928 Hartung had succeeded Rivett in the chair of chemistry; he held it until 1953. Over this period he devoted much time to the university extension lecture scheme, and, in the 1930s, to the design and construction of a large, new chemistry building. Of tall, spare build, he presented a somewhat stern image to the student body; inspiring respect rather than affection, he was a strict, though fair, disciplinarian. His lecturing style surged with enthusiasm. Hearing his account of a test million-volt flash-over which he had witnessed at Teddington, England, Rivett assured the audience that Hartung's description was even more impressive than the original.

During World War I, Hartung had been ineligible for military service due to defective eyesight, but he made a useful contribution to the local provision of gas masks. Masson, W. A. Osborne and T. H. Laby comprised the committee charged with the design task. According to Hartung, Masson was incensed by the action of the 'never-equable' Laby in complaining directly to the attorney-general W. M. Hughes about the work of his colleagues. The rift which ensued between chemistry and physics lasted until World War II when Laby was chairman of the Optical Munitions Panel. In this capacity he approached Hartung to chair the advisory committee on optical materials, asking if optical glass of the requisite quality and properties could be made in Australia. Hartung proceeded to produce trial batches, using local raw materials for the crucibles and melts, which met the exacting specification. Subsequent large-scale production by Australia Consolidated Industries Ltd under the dynamic leadership of the redoubtable W. J. 'Gunboat' Smith confounded British experts, production being achieved within ten months instead of the predicted four years, and at a cost of £60,000 instead of the forecast £1 million. 'After that', said Hartung, 'we chemists were Laby's white-haired boys'.

Hartung contributed to other branches of organized science as general president (1927-28, 1929-30 and 1931-33) of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, ex-officio councillor (1943-48) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and trustee (1950-55) of the Museum of Applied Science, Melbourne. He represented Australia in 1931 at the centenary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1941 at the Royal Society and Commonwealth Scientific conferences. Apart from bushwalking associated with photographic excursions, he had no outdoor recreation, except that associated with his presidency, for many years, of the university football club. His stiff, formal academic reserve tended to be put aside during the excitement of the game.

Early retirement in 1953 was part of Hartung's determination to live to his eighties with faculties unimpaired. At his farm at Woodend he established an observatory (30 cm Newtonian reflector). His study of some 4000 stellar objects gave rise to Astronomical Objects for Southern Telescopes . . . a handbook for amateur observers (London, 1968); the work had involved countless hours of observation in freezing conditions, a severe test of his great physical stamina.

In his twenty-five years of retirement Hartung was the complete naturalist and warmly accepted as sage of the district. His explicit ambition to remain alive to view the total eclipse of 1976 was fulfilled, as was his cheerful prognostication that the return of Halley's Comet in 1986 would lie beyond his span. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 30 January 1979 at Parkville and was cremated. He was spared the sadness of the total destruction of his beloved Lavender Farm by the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 when his meticulous diary of some 7000 pages was consumed; only a short copy-excerpt remains.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • R. Rivett, David Rivett (Melb, 1972)
  • J. Radford, The Chemistry Department of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1978)
  • L. W. Weickhardt, Masson of Melbourne (Melb, 1989)
  • Chemistry in Australia, 46, no 5, May 1979, p 219
  • Hartung papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

L. W. Weickhardt, 'Hartung, Ernst Johannes (1893–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ernst Johannes Hartung (1893-1979), by unknown photographer, 1940-42

Ernst Johannes Hartung (1893-1979), by unknown photographer, 1940-42

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1473

Life Summary [details]


23 April, 1893
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


30 January, 1979 (aged 85)
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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