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Mary Masson (1862–1945)

by L. W. Weickhardt

This article was published:

Mary Masson is a minor entry in this article

Sir David Orme Masson (1858-1937), chemist, professor and man of science, was born on 13 January 1858 at Hampstead, near London, second child and only son of David Mather Masson, professor of English literature at University College, London, and his wife Emily Rosaline, née Orme. In 1865 his father took up the chair of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Edinburgh. Masson attended Oliphant's School in Edinburgh in 1865-68 before enrolling at Edinburgh Academy, a private establishment patronized by the professional elite. He matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, graduated M.A. in 1877 and then studied chemistry under Crum Brown, graduating B.Sc. in 1880. Undergraduate life was enriched by the presence of (Sir) James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson.

After the 'obligatory' excursion to Germany, including a short period in Wöhler's laboratory at Gottingen in 1879, Masson joined (Sir) William Ramsay, newly appointed professor of chemistry at Bristol University College, for a year as lecturer. The two young men teamed famously and established a lifelong friendship, one of the major influences in Masson's career. Returning to Edinburgh in 1881, he undertook research on the composition of nitroglycerine leading to his doctorate in 1884. The University of Edinburgh celebrated its tercentenary in 1884 and both Massons, father and son, were prominent in the festivities. The younger Masson had played a leading role in the establishment of the Students' Representative Council (the first of its kind in any university) and in the university union which followed.

The celebrations attracted a house guest, Mary Struthers, daughter of an old friend of the elder Masson. In a matter of weeks she became engaged to the tall and handsome Orme but their marriage awaited securing an appointment with an assured income. After various disappointments Masson was offered the chair of chemistry at the University of Melbourne, and the wedding took place on 5 August 1886 at Aberdeen according to the forms of the Church of Scotland. The Massons sailed a few weeks later.

Masson's initial responsibility in Melbourne was lecturing to first-year classes in which the preponderance of medical students was reminiscent of Edinburgh; regulations for the institution of a degree in science had only just been introduced. His inaugural lecture in 1887 made a striking impression as to content and elegance of style; from the outset his mastery of classroom discipline stemmed from the inherent charm and organization of his material. He was remembered by his former student (Sir) Kingsley Norris as 'the prince of demonstrators'. Masson was soon joined by two other gifted young professorial colleagues, (Sir) Baldwin Spencer and (Sir) Thomas Lyle, in biology and natural philosophy: they constituted a powerful trio for the establishment of teaching and research in the sciences. Outside the university Masson was appointed to the Victorian Board of Public Health in 1890—the first of many public commitments.

Despite the heavy burden of teaching and planning Masson always found time for personal research. His first paper from the Melbourne laboratory concerned relationships between the physical properties and chemical characteristics of liquids of the same chemical type. His presidential address for section B of the 1891 Christchurch meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science dealt with the theory of solutions, from which emerged the term 'critical solution temperature'. Ramsay thought so highly of the paper that he arranged for its publication in Nature and the Zeitschrift für Physikalische Chemie.

Though Masson was never interested in money as such, and had in fact earlier declined an opportunity to invest in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, he was intent on preserving his savings in the financial crash of 1893 and hastened by cable tram to his city bank to withdraw his money only hours before it closed its doors. Thus he was able to take his family on leave of absence in 1895. Their arrival in Britain coincided with the discovery of helium and argon by Ramsay and his colleagues at University College, London. Masson, who for years had devoted much attention to the periodic classification of the elements, is credited with persuading Ramsay that these two newcomers were part of a hitherto undiscovered group, and that Ramsay should look for the others. Over the next few years Ramsay was to isolate the four missing members.

In 1899 Masson's abiding interest in ionic theory led to work on the velocity of migration of ions in solutions, and the ingenious equipment he devised was widely adopted. About this time he reported to the British government on the establishment of an Indian institute of science, but in 1901 he declined the post of foundation principal, remaining in Melbourne to become dean of the faculty of science in 1905. With increasing demands on his administrative abilities, he yet remained a steadfast teacher, continuing to produce brilliant scholars such as (Sir) David Rivett and his own son Irvine. His research work was mainly performed in collaboration with these and other gifted graduates. In 1905 he was joined as lecturer by his former student Bertram Steele. Working with the physicist (Sir) Kerr Grant, Steele devised a microbalance which brought a new dimension to the accurate weighing of minuscule amounts of matter. An improved version constructed in Ramsay's laboratories was the key to the determination in 1910 of the atomic weight of radon, the last member of the 'rare' gases to be isolated.

A long-held ambition had been realized by Masson in 1900 when the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria was founded with him as president, bringing together over one hundred industrial and academic chemists covering a wide range of interests; in 1904 the growing scope and maturity of academic chemistry led him to form the Melbourne University Chemical Society. In 1911 Masson was president of the Sydney meeting of A.A.A.S., lending his considerable influence to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition then being planned by (Sir) Douglas Mawson. This was the beginning of Masson's twenty-five year involvement with Antarctic research. At the same meeting he announced that the British Association addressed by him a few months before had accepted the Commonwealth invitation to hold its 1914 meeting in Australia. As chairman of the executive committee, he largely fulfilled his hope that the meeting would be 'as brilliant, as memorable, as it should be', despite the outbreak of war.

Masson's administrative work materially increased with his chairmanship of the professorial board in 1912-16. But invited to succeed Ramsay at University College, London, he once again chose to remain in Australia. He was closely involved with the formation in 1916 of the Commonwealth Advisory Council set up to consider and initiate researches in connexion with primary and secondary industries, and became deputy chairman. He and his council colleagues were buffeted by the vehement opposition of State departments, the suspicion of many academics, and the vagaries and duplicity of some politicians. When after four years the long awaited draft bill was tabled to establish the permanent Institute of Science and Industry, it fell so far short of Masson's reasonable expectations that he resigned in protest, declaring that 'as a nett result of four-and-a-half years work I have no faith in politicians'. Fortunately there were politicians who retained faith in Masson, and when Prime Minister Stanley (Viscount) Bruce convened a review conference in May 1925, Masson, though now in retirement, was selected as the speaker to follow him; he was unwavering in the promulgation of his original concepts for the institute. There were cries of dissent from some academics, including Steele, when he maintained that universities existed primarily for the education of students; but the Act of 1926 establishing the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research largely reflected his lofty ideals, and he was delighted when Rivett, his successor in the Melbourne chair, was appointed chief executive. Masson was a council-member until his death.

The decade 1916-26 undoubtedly saw the peak of Masson's accomplishments. Concurrent with his work towards the establishment of C.S.I.R. were activities connected with the formation in 1921 of the Australian National Research Council; Masson was president in 1922-26. A wartime concern was the professional organization of chemists. Determined to move towards proper professional standards in Australia, Masson had much to do with founding the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute in 1917; he was first president of the Victorian branch (1917-20) and first general president (1923-24). During the war he was also a member of the Commonwealth Munitions Committee.

After Masson's retirement in 1923 and his appointment as emeritus professor he maintained a close association with C.S.I.R. and all the societies of which he was a founder. He acted as a consultant to the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia, was an elder statesman on the boards of the Union Trustee Co. and the National Mutual Life Association (1925-37), and served as a deputy commissioner of the State Electricity Commission (1925). Nor were the lifetime habits of research and study neglected, for he persisted with the development of theories connected with the conductivity of electrolytes.

Masson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1903 and some years later a fellow of the (Royal) Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1918 and K.B.E. in 1923; the University of Edinburgh awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1924. First and foremost he was a great teacher. Many of his students such as David Avery, (Sir) Herbert Gepp and (Sir) Russell Grimwade went on to occupy high positions in national affairs. Sir Macfarlane Burnet, describing an evening lecture delivered by Masson in 1920, wrote: 'I can remember sitting high up in the back row, entranced for the first time with the wonder and glory of discovery'. Masson used to good effect a single raised eyebrow as a quizzical mark of emphasis. From his early years he seems to have embraced a Huxley type of agnosticism. He possessed great stores of energy and endurance, was a strong walker, a skilled golfer and a foundation member of the (Royal) Melbourne Golf Club, and also played tennis and billiards. He cherished a great love for Edinburgh and the Highlands and, an accomplished correspondent, for many years wrote a weekly letter 'home' (unfortunately mostly destroyed). He was generous and supportive of his family.

Masson died of cancer at South Yarra on 10 August 1937, and was cremated. His wife, his daughter Flora Marjorie (Marnie), wife of (Sir) Walter Bassett and a gifted historian, and his son survived him. He was predeceased by his daughter Elsie Rosaline, wife of the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski; she published An Untamed Territory: The Northern Territory of Australia in 1915. A fine portrait of Masson by William McInnes is in the foyer of the University of Melbourne chemistry department. The department fronts on to Masson Road and houses the Masson theatre. In 1931 a Masson lectureship was promoted by the A.N.R.C. and since 1939 the R.A.C.I. has offered the Masson memorial scholarship. A mountain range and an island in the Australian sector of Antarctica are named for him.

Mary Masson (1862-1945) was born on 11 July 1862 in Edinburgh, fourth of seven children of (Sir) John Struthers, professor of anatomy at Aberdeen, and his wife Christina Margaret, née Alexander. In Melbourne she followed the rearing of her children with dedicated community work, although it was not until the war years that her true métier for community service developed and her nostalgia for Scotland faded. A founding member of the Victoria League (1908), she was president of the University branch of the Australian Red Cross Society (1914-19), executive member of the Australian Comforts Fund (1915-18) and foundation member of the New Settlers' League (1921) and the Country Women's Association in Victoria (1928). She belonged to the Lyceum and Alexandra clubs and the Victoria League, and was appointed C.B.E. in 1918.

Lady Masson adorned university society and drew the wives of sub-professorial staff 'who did not officially exist' into the social life of the campus. Although without scientific training she regularly attended meetings of the University Chemical Society, a custom maintained after her husband's death. Her valuable organizing ability was used with tact and imagination; she had a gift of creating harmony among men and women of diverging points of view and widening the lives of people lonely in an unfamiliar setting. Active in the Young Settlers' League, she was the mainspring of a Victoria League committee that arranged introductions for Australians going overseas.

In World War II she was still busy, especially in the formation of the Women of the University Fund which works for disadvantaged children. She was of diminutive stature, which combined well with a pleasant air of authority and purpose. On her death on 25 September 1945 at Armadale the university flag was flown at half mast. Her memory is honoured at the university by the Lady Masson memorial lecture.

SIR James Irvine Orme Masson (1887-1962) was born on 3 September 1887 at Toorak. He was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and entered the University of Melbourne in 1904 (B.Sc., 1907). After taking the second year of the medical course he reverted to chemistry and was awarded an 1851 exhibition scholarship in 1910. He spent a year at Edinburgh, then moved to University College, London, to become Ramsay's last personal assistant—his father had been the first.

On 20 December 1913 Irvine Masson married his cousin Flora Lovell, daughter of George Lovell Gulland, professor of medicine at Edinburgh. During the war years he joined the research department at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. Back at University College in the post-war period he developed an interest in the history of chemistry and in bibliography; his Three Centuries of Chemistry (1925) was widely acclaimed. In 1924 he was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Durham and head of the department of science. Though much involved in administration, for the next fourteen years he continued research, making significant contributions in his study of nitration and of the organic compounds of iodine. In 1938 he became vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield. During World War II he also directed a Ministry of Supply chemistry team.

Masson retired to Edinburgh in 1952 where he continued his study of incunabula, publishing in 1954 The Mainz Psalters and Canon Missae, 1457-1459. A man of extreme reticence, he was appointed M.B.E. in 1918, elected F.R.S. in 1939, and knighted in 1950. He died in Edinburgh on 22 October 1962, survived by his son.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • F. K. Norris, No Memory for Pain (Melb, 1970)
  • J. M. Gillison, A History of the Lyceum Club (Melb, 1975)
  • Science and Industry, 1 (June 1919), no 2
  • Obituary Notices (1939) and Biographical Memoirs (1963) of the Fellows of the Royal Society
  • Australian Journal of Science, 3 (1940-41), p 139
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, Nov 1958, p 533
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Oct 1945
  • Masson papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

L. W. Weickhardt, 'Masson, Mary (1862–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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