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James Cosmo Newbery (1843–1895)

by R. H. Fowler

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James Cosmo Newbery (1843-1895), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

James Cosmo Newbery (1843-1895), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/06/95/20

James Cosmo Newbery (1843-1895), industrial chemist and public servant, was born on 28 June 1843 at Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, fourth son of William Boxer Newbery, and his wife Elizabeth, née Fraser. At an early age he went with his parents to Boston, America. He was appointed assistant to Josiah Parkins Cooke, professor of chemistry at Harvard University, and also studied at its Lawrence Scientific School (B.Sc., 1864). He went to London and briefly attended the Royal School of Mines where he won certificates in metallurgy and assaying. Selected analyst to the Geological Survey of Victoria under A. R. C. Selwyn, he sailed for Melbourne and arrived in June 1865.

In 1869 the government decided to close the Geological Survey as an economy measure, but next year the new Industrial and Technological Museum was opened and Newbery became scientific superintendent, with the right of private practice. He vigorously developed the museum trustees' policy for technical education, and within a year courses were offered in chemistry, metallurgy, geology, physiology, astronomy and telegraphy. The training of Victoria's first apprentices in pharmacy was added under the 1876 Act. These classes continued until the Working Men's College took them over, in 1887. He also developed the museum's display and inquiry services very effectively.

Newbery continued as analyst to the Mines Department, although in January-April 1878 he was a victim of G. Berry's civil service retrenchments. With high repute as a consultant in mining technology, he served on many technical commissions. In 1890 an improved method of chlorination for gold extraction, worked out by Newbery and Vautin, achieved world-wide adoption and Newbery was recognized as an authority on gold amalgamation. His most far-reaching assignment was his mission to Germany in June 1891 with Victorian brown coal samples for firing and briquetting tests. In February 1892 he returned with details of the Lührig process which appeared to create far greater interest than brown coal.

Newbery's laboratory at the museum was enlarged in 1876 to cope with increasing duties which included student training and consultant services to the mining industry. He also collected food samples and analysed them for contaminants, thus laying the foundation for the 1905 Act for preventing adulterated foods. Newbery was also a member of the Central Board of Health. His scientific erudition and personal qualities led to his appointment as honorary superintendent of juries and awards for the 1880 International Exhibition in Melbourne. In 1881 he was appointed C.M.G.

On 15 December 1870 at St George's Church, Malvern, Newbery married Catherine Florence Maud, daughter of George Hodgkinson of Dorking, England. Unhappily he suffered spinal and chest injuries in the Windsor railway collision of 11 May 1887; although never fully recovered, he still carried out much important work. He died at his home in Hotham Street, East St Kilda, on 1 May 1895.

A portrait bust in marble by Percival Ball, commissioned by friends, is in the Science Museum, Melbourne. A former gold mining centre on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia, now an Aboriginal community (Yilka), was named Cosmo Newbery in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Ure's Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures and Mines, supplement to 7th ed (Lond, 1878)
  • Australasian Chemist and Druggist, 113 (1885)
  • E. J. Dunn and D. J. Mahony, ‘Biographical sketch of the founders of the geological survey of Victoria’, Victorian Geological Survey, Bulletin, 23 (1910) and for publications
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26, 27 May 1882, 12 May 1887, 17 June 1891, 22, 24, 27 Feb 1892, 2 May, 14 June 1895
  • Australian Mining Standard, 25 June, 8 Oct 1890
  • Australasian, 13 June 1891, 27 Feb 1892
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1899
  • J. C. Newbery, application for museum post, 1870 and letter to chairman re assistance, 1872 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

R. H. Fowler, 'Newbery, James Cosmo (1843–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Cosmo Newbery (1843-1895), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

James Cosmo Newbery (1843-1895), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co.

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/06/95/20

Life Summary [details]


28 June, 1843
Livorno, Tuscany, Italy


1 May, 1895 (aged 51)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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