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James Hamilton (Jim) O'Donnell (1934–1995)

by David J. T. Hill

This article was published:

James Hamilton O’Donnell (1934–1995), professor of chemistry, was born on 3 September 1934 in South Perth, eldest of the three sons of James O’Donnell (1908–1946), a locally born forest officer, and his Victorian-born wife Annie Hamilton, née Dunn. His father’s work took the family to various parts of Western Australia. Jim attended Kirup State and, back in Perth, Como State schools. In 1945 O’Donnell senior was appointed as assistant conservator of forests in Tasmania and the family moved to Hobart. After he died in the crash of an airliner in the sea near Hobart on 10 March 1946, his wife and children returned to Perth. Jim won a scholarship to Perth Modern School (1947–51), where he excelled. In 1951 he edited the school magazine, Sphinx; served as a school prefect and a lieutenant in the cadets; and, a good sportsman, played in the Western Australian schoolboys’ hockey team. Awarded an exhibition, he entered the University of Western Australia, majoring in chemistry and physics (BSc, 1955) and gaining honours (1956) in chemistry.

On completing his studies, O’Donnell joined Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd in Melbourne, working first as a development chemist in the firm’s Yarraville factory and then as a research chemist in its central research laboratories at Ascot Vale. As a result of a meeting with Professor (Sir) Frederick (Baron) Dainton when he visited the laboratories, O’Donnell moved to England in 1959 and studied part time under Dr Ken Ivin in Dainton’s department of physical chemistry at the University of Leeds (PhD, 1963). He was also a senior demonstrator in the department and a sub-warden, successively, of Woodsley Hall and Woodsley House at Bodington Hall.

 Having played A-grade hockey for St Kilda in Melbourne, O’Donnell kept up the sport at Leeds. He travelled widely in Britain and Europe, and continued passions developed earlier for walking and the outdoors. In 1963 he spent nine months with Professor Herbert Morawetz’s polymer research group at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, New York. The friendships he made at Leeds and Brooklyn would remain strong and important to him. Back in England, on 14 December that year, at the parish church of St Andrew, Starbeck, Yorkshire, he married Stella Rayner Gregory; she was a PhD student in pharmacology at Leeds and later a professor in the physiology and pharmacology department of the University of Queensland.

In February 1964 O’Donnell took up a lectureship in physical chemistry at the University of Queensland. His research followed the themes of his PhD and postdoctoral work: the mechanisms of polymerisations and the degradation of polymers by high-energy radiation. Murrae Bowden, his first PhD student, later succeeded in utilising polybutene sulfone as the mask for producing computer chips. The achievement gave O’Donnell particular satisfaction, as the selection of this polymer as a mask was based on his own fundamental research. In the mid-1970s he and two academic colleagues, Peter Pomery and David Hill, set up the polymer materials and radiation group at the university; it gained a distinguished international reputation.

During his career, O’Donnell published more than two hundred and fifty research papers. His book, Principles of Radiation Chemistry (1970), co-authored with his friend David Sangster, was printed in English and Japanese. Promoted to senior lecturer (1969) and to reader (1976), he became in 1986 only the second chemistry staff member to be awarded a personal chair. In 1988 he was appointed as professor of physical chemistry. The University of Leeds awarded him a DSc (1986) for his research.

An associate member (1959) and fellow (1970) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, from 1964 O’Donnell was prominent in its affairs and a leader of its fledgling polymer division. He chaired the division (1971–73) and the 6th Australian Polymer Symposium (1973), held at Broadbeach, Queensland. Active, as well, in the RACI’s chemical education division, he chaired its Queensland group (1980–81) and the committee (1981–84) that founded National Chemistry Week in 1981. In 1985–86 he was president of the institute. His RACI scientific awards included the Battaerd-Jordon polymer medal (1982), the H. G. Smith memorial medal (1983), and the Leighton memorial medal (1990). The Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering awarded him, posthumously, its 1995 gold medal for excellence in research.

Conscious of the need to keep abreast of international developments and to promote Australian polymer science overseas, O’Donnell had regularly attended conferences in Europe, North America, and Asia. He was active in the macromolecular division of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and he was responsible for organising the IUPAC-sponsored symposia Polymer ’85, Polymer ’91, and Macro ’98 in Australia. In addition, he arranged a series of joint American Chemical Society-RACI polymer division mini-symposia held in the United States of America and Australia. With Otto Vogl and Takeo Saegusa, two friends from his time at Brooklyn Polytechnic, he founded the Pacific Polymer Federation in 1987; he was its third president (1992–93).

O’Donnell was a tall, athletic, friendly, and vibrant man, with abundant energy for getting things done. He died of cancer on 29 April 1995 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife and their two daughters survived him. Convinced of the value of a period of research abroad, he left the RACI $25,000 to establish the Jim O’Donnell international travel awards, open to young members of the institute.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Chiswell, Barry. A Diamond Period: A Brief History of the Chemistry Department of the University of Queensland from 1910–1985. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1986
  • Hill, David, and Peter Pomery. ‘Jim O’Donnell FRACI 1934–1995.’ Chemistry in Australia 62, no. 11 (November 1995): 40
  • O’Donnell, Stella. Personal Communication
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Polymer Division, Royal Australian Chemical Institute. Historical Records

Additional Resources

Citation details

David J. T. Hill, 'O'Donnell, James Hamilton (Jim) (1934–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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