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Archibald Liversidge (1846–1927)

by D. P. Mellor

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Archibald Liversidge (1846-1927), scientist, was born on 17 November 1846 at Turnham Green, London, son of John Liversidge and his wife Caroline Sophia, née Jarratt. Educated privately, he entered the Royal School of Mines and the Royal College of Chemistry. In 1867 as a royal exhibitioner he became an instructor in chemistry at the Royal School of Naval Architecture. In 1870 he won a scholarship at Christ's College, Cambridge (M.A. hon. causa, 1887); in 1872 he became demonstrator in chemistry but resigned to take up appointment as 'Reader in Geology and Assistant in the Laboratory' at the University of Sydney. In 1874 he became professor of geology and mineralogy.

On arrival Liversidge had about ten students and two rooms in the main building. One of his first tasks was to secure proper recognition of science in both secondary and tertiary education. Science became a matriculation subject in New South Wales in 1873 but the teaching remained inadequate. In an address to the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1900 he commented that 'It would be appropriate if the community turned over a new leaf with the new century by insisting on better provision for science teaching in schools'. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Henry Armstrong's heuristic method of teaching science, advocated technical education and was an original member of the Board of Technical Education. In 1880 he published his Report Upon Certain Museums for Technology, Science and Art. As a trustee of the Australian Museum he visited Europe in 1880 on a study tour. On his return he helped to establish the Industrial, Technological and Sanitary Museum and became a member of its first committee of management.

'After Homeric battles with the forces of Arts', Liversidge persuaded the senate to open a faculty of science and was its first dean in 1879-1907. He was one of the few who agreed to admit women to the university. In 1892 he founded a school of mines at the university and was a fellow of the senate in 1878-1904. In 1872 he had joined the Royal Society of New South Wales, and as its honorary secretary in 1874-84 virtually re-established it, editing its Journal and Proceedings for many years. His fellow secretary, Dr C. A. Leibius, said that 'We never got a move on until Liversidge came'. He was president in 1886, 1890 and 1901.

In the early 1880s Liversidge canvassed the idea of asking the British Association for the Advancement of Science to visit Australia but in vain. He then conceived an Australian association. Through his friends, Captain F. W. Hutton and Sir James Hector, he won the support of New Zealand and after much planning the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held its first congress in 1888. He was its honorary secretary until 1909 and president in 1898. In 1902 he founded the Sydney section of the Society of Chemical Industry. He also saw opportunities in Federation for introducing the decimal system for coinage and weights and measures, and for forming a national academy of science with headquarters in the federal capital. He also tried to start an Australian equivalent to the English journal Nature and had printed a prospectus for an Australian scientific journal.

Liversidge read papers to the Royal Society of New South Wales on 'The Deniliquin Meteorite' (December, 1872), 'Notes on the Bingara Diamond District' (October, 1874) and 'Iron and Coal at Wallerawang' and 'Nickel Minerals from New Caledonia' (December, 1874). In 1882 he became professor of mineralogy and chemistry. In 1876 he had first published The Minerals of New South Wales; a second and enlarged edition appeared in 1882 and the third, larger, edition coincided with the centenary of the colony in 1888. The book was widely reviewed and was his major contribution to science. He was mainly interested in the chemical composition of minerals but the absence of their detailed crystallography and optical properties reduced the usefulness of his book.

Liversidge was one of the first to detect gold and platinum metals in meteorites. He was also interested in dusts suspected to be of meteoritic origin, and an early demonstrator of the occurrence of gold in sea-water. He contributed over a hundred research papers to the Chemical Society, Royal Society of New South Wales and the Royal Society of London. His work was widely recognized and at least thirteen universities and scientific bodies gave him honorary degrees or memberships. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London, the Chemical Society, the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the Royal Geographical Society of London.

Liversidge was somewhat shy and retiring and never married. He was not a fluent speaker but as a lecturer at the university and in public gave successful and impressive practical demonstrations. He was quick to see the possibilities of liquid air for these purposes. When he retired in 1907 the chemistry department had seven lecturers and demonstrators and some 200 students. The university conferred on him the title of emeritus. He returned to London where he continued his interest in chemistry and worked in the Davy-Faraday research laboratory of the Royal Institution. In 1910-13 he served as vice-president of the Chemical Society, London. In his last years he lived at Fieldhouse, Kingston Hill, where he entertained many of his old colleagues and friends from overseas and enjoyed his motor cars. He died from a heart attack on 26 September 1927.

One of his old colleagues claimed that 'The late Professor Archibald Liversidge … was certainly the greatest organiser of science that Australia has seen and surely no-one in that country ever worked more unselfishly and with greater singleness of purpose than he to serve science for its own sake'. His estate was valued for probate at over £46,000. He made bequests to the University of Sydney, the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society of New South Wales to be used for encouraging research in chemistry by means of special lectures.

His portrait by John Collier, R.A., is in the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • R. J. W. Le Fèvre, ‘The establishment of chemistry within Australian science’, Royal Society of New South Wales, A Century of Scientific Progress (Syd, 1968)
  • T. W. E. David, ‘Archibald Liversidge’, Chemical Society (London), Journal (1938), 598
  • D. P. Mellor, ‘Founders of Australian chemistry: Archibald Liversidge’, Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings (1957), 415.

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Citation details

D. P. Mellor, 'Liversidge, Archibald (1846–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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