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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Le Fèvre, Raymond James (1905–1986)

by H. G. Holland

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Raymond Le Fèvre, c1943

Raymond Le Fèvre, c1943

Australian War Memorial, P05255.002

Raymond James Wood Le Fèvre (1905-1986), professor of chemistry, was born on 1 April 1905 at Hornsey, London, eldest of three children of Raymond James Lefèvre, solicitor’s clerk, and his wife Ethel May, née Wood.  He was born into a devout Catholic family, and his time (1915-16) at the Salesian College, Farnborough, strengthened his interest in Catholic history, customs and culture.  Raymond then attended (1916-22) Isleworth County School, before studying chemistry at East London (Queen Mary) College, University of London (B.Sc., 1925; M.Sc., 1927; Ph.D., 1929; D.Sc., 1935).

As a lecturer (1928-38) and reader (1938-46) at University College, London, Le Fèvre worked in the discipline of physical organic chemistry, using modern techniques to solve questions of molecular structure.  He published Dipole Moments: Their Measurement and Application in Chemistry (1938).  On 1 August 1931 at Glasgow, Scotland, he married in a civil ceremony Catherine Gunn Tideman, a chemistry student, who became his research partner.

From September 1939 Le Fèvre organised the training of gas identification officers for the Ministry of Home Security.  Next year he joined the directorate of scientific research, located first in the Air Ministry and then in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, as an adviser on chemical weapons.  On 25 March 1941 he was seconded to the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Air Force with the honorary rank of wing commander.  He was posted to Malaya, where he arranged anti-gas defences and supervised the storage, and later the destruction, of the RAF’s stock of chemical weapons.  With the Japanese advance along the Malay Peninsula, he was evacuated to Australia, arriving on 14 March 1942.  Due to the possibility of a Japanese invasion, he remained in Australia and was attached to the Royal Australian Air Force’s directorates of Armament and Air Staff Policy, supervising field trials of gas exposure.  He travelled extensively in Australia and New Guinea.  Suffering from the effects of mustard gas exposure, he became temporarily blind and permanently lost his senses of taste and smell.

In December 1943, having found a replacement, Le Fèvre returned to Britain and resumed work with the Ministry of Aircraft Production as assistant director (research and development, armament chemistry); he left the RAF early in 1944.  He was appointed to the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, where he oversaw the design and construction of a new chemistry building and continued experimental research.

With his family Le Fèvre arrived in Australia in 1946 to take up an appointment as professor of chemistry at the University of Sydney.  In the 1950s he again helped to plan a new chemistry building.  Presiding (1948-70) over a successful research school, he supervised more than a hundred postgraduate scholars.

Raymond and Catherine Le Fèvre resumed their research collaboration, developing a specialised technique that they summarised in published articles—for example, 'The Kerr Effect' in A. Weissberger and B. Rossiter (eds), Physical Methods of Chemistry (1972).  In 1960 the University of London conferred on Catherine a D.Sc.  Raymond published several hundred research papers.  The British chemist Sir Christopher Ingold described Le Fèvre’s work on molecular electric anisotropy as 'outstandingly original', and 'complete in its grand conception'.  He concluded that what is known of the electronic polarisability of molecules as a function of direction 'comes almost entirely from the work of the Sydney School'.

The (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute elected Le Fèvre a fellow in 1946 and gave him the H. G. Smith memorial medal for 1952.  A foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1959.  He served as president (1961-62) of the Royal Society of New South Wales and won its medal in 1969.  The University of Sydney awarded him an honorary D.Sc. in 1985.

After his retirement from the University of Sydney in 1970, Le Fèvre continued his scholarly activities at Macquarie University in an honorary capacity.  He made donations to the University of Sydney, Macquarie University and Queen Mary College, University of London, to help young chemists.  The Le Fèvres were known for their gracious hospitality.  Raymond’s colleagues Manuel Aroney and David Buckingham described him as warm and gregarious, 'with a subtle and gently wicked humour'; he was 'compassionate and feeling: a man who evoked loyalty and deep affection'.  Le Fèvre died on 26 August 1986 at his home at Northbridge, Sydney, and was cremated.  His wife and their daughter survived him; their son predeceased (1977) him.  The Australian Academy of Science instituted the R. J. W. Le Fèvre memorial prize in 1989.

Select Bibliography

  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 34, 1988
  • Le Fèvre papers (University of Sydney Archives)

Citation details

H. G. Holland, 'Le Fèvre, Raymond James (1905–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 4 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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