Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Brownlie Henderson (1869–1950)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

John Brownlie Henderson (1869-1950), analytical chemist, was born on 29 April 1869 at Barrhead, near Glasgow, Scotland, son of Robert Henderson, cashier, and his wife Jane, née Kinloch. After primary education at board schools, he attended Allan Glen's Technical School and in 1887-88 Anderson's University, Glasgow, now the University of Strathclyde. He became research assistant to Professor William Dittmar, particularly in a complex investigation of the gravimetric composition of water which won the Graham gold medal for research.

Following his parents to Queensland in 1891, Henderson became science master at Brisbane Grammar School and in 1893 government analyst. He returned to Britain in 1899 and married Jean Susan McKeown at Leenane, Connemara, Ireland; they had four sons. As analyst Henderson undertook chemical work for all State departments except the Department of Agriculture, and eventually for Federal departments in Brisbane. With J. C. Brünnich, his agricultural counterpart, he had a standing demarcation dispute. In a laboratory containing much equipment designed by him, Henderson and his staff undertook a constant flow of routine tasks, punctuated by such high points as the testing of the first significant Australian oil discovered at Roma. Something of an egotist, he spoke always of 'my laboratory'.

Asked to draft the Explosives Act of 1906, he became chief inspector under the Act in 1907 and supervised the creation of magazines all over Queensland; an explosives area at Narangba was named after him in 1951. During World War I he was a member of the State Munitions Committee which arranged the dispatch of 600 workers to Britain and chaired the committee which controlled all explosives in the State.

An enthusiast for education, Henderson was active both in the Sydney University Extension Committee and the movement which finally secured a university for Brisbane. In the first of three terms as president of the Royal Society of Queensland he devoted his presidential address to a review of Queensland education and a plea for a university. Nominated to the first university senate, he resigned only on retirement in 1936. Henderson chaired the chemistry section of the 1904 meeting at Dunedin of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science; in 1917 he was a founder (fellow 1918) of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute and was its first Queensland president. Appointed to the State committee of the Advisory Council for Science and Industry in 1916, he acted in 1917 for a chairman on war service and joined ex officio the national executive committee. He chaired the provisional State Advisory Board of the Institute of Science and Industry from March 1921 and became a member of the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in November 1928, resigning in 1949 when it was reconstituted. In 1937-42 he helped his son to develop a prickly-pear selection at Palardo.

Henderson was an executive member of the Queensland branch of the Australian Red Cross Society in 1914-18. Later, as an officer of the Boy Scouts' Association, he acted as providore for a world jamboree in Brisbane. Tall and thin with strong cheekbones and a 'handlebar' moustache, Henderson was an excellent lecturer despite a tendency to verbosity and over-emphasis of sibilants. He was scientifically cautious when asked for forensic evidence: policemen called him 'the silent witness' because he refused to venture opinions and stuck to facts. He died at Annerley on 19 October 1950 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • Advisory Council of Science and Industry, and Institute of Science and Industry, and CSIR, Annual Report, 1916-29 (CSIRO Archives, Canberra)
  • Queensland State Committee, CSIR, minutes (CSIRO Archives, Canberra)
  • personal papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Henderson, John Brownlie (1869–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 April, 1869
Barrhead, Renfrewshire, Scotland


19 October, 1950 (aged 81)
Annerley, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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