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Sir John Edward Parker (1904–1985)

by Donald W. Watts

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Alan James Parker

Sir John Edward Parker (1904-1985), civil engineer and public servant, and Alan James (1933-1982), chemist and mineral technologist, were father and son.  John was born on 28 September 1904 at Orbost, Victoria, third child of Victorian-born parents Matthew Parker, miner, and his wife Edith Florence, née Long.  Educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (BCE, 1927), where he resided at Queen’s College, he joined first the State Electricity Commission of Victoria and then the Country Roads Board.  He moved to Western Australia in 1930, when he was appointed to a post in the Main Roads Department.  Soon transferring to the Metropolitan Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Department, he was promoted in 1941 to engineer, 1st class.  On 18 April 1932 at St Paul’s Church of England, Harvey, he had married Winifred Mary Becher, sister of Otto Becher.

Commissioned as a lieutenant in 1940, John Parker served full time in the Militia from 17 December 1941, then in the Australian Imperial Force from September 1942.  He commanded the 21st Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, in Papua (1944) and Borneo (1945) as a major and transferred to the Reserve of Officers in January 1946.  Resuming his pre-war post, in 1949 he became chief construction engineer, and, in 1953, deputy-director of works in the Public Works, Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Department.  In 1962 he was appointed chief engineer.  Managing the upgrading and development of the ports of Esperance, Albany, Bunbury, Geraldton, Broome, Derby and Wyndham, he also made significant contributions to the building of water-storage dams.  In 1969-71 he helped to launch mining ventures at Goldsworthy, Mount Newman, Robe River and Leslie and major resource projects of Western Mining Corporation Ltd and Alcoa of Australia Ltd.

When Parker formally retired in 1969, the minister for works and water supplies, (Sir) Ross Hutchinson, said that he had played an important role in the development of the State, welding together private enterprise and government in huge projects.  Parker retained part-time roles as co-ordinator of development and chairman of the North-West Planning and Coordinating Authority; he was also chairman (1969-74) of the State Electricity Commission.  He worked closely with Sir Charles Court in his various ministerial positions and as premier to develop the North-West, including the Ord River Scheme.  Knighted in 1975, he was elected (1980) an honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia.  He was a keen golfer and a member of the Royal Perth Golf Club; he also enjoyed gardening at his South Perth home and fishing.  Survived by his wife and their younger son and daughter, Sir John died on 25 January 1985 at Subiaco and was cremated.

His elder son, Alan James, was born on 21 December 1933 in South Perth.  Jim was educated at Wesley College, Perth, where he was dux in 1950, and at the University of Western Australia (B.Sc. Hons, 1954; Ph.D., 1959).  He majored in chemistry; his Ph.D. thesis was on the mechanism of aromatic nucleophilic substitution reactions.  Awarded Hackett and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization overseas studentships, he undertook postdoctoral studies at the University of Southern California, United States of America, and University College, London.  He continued his research at the University of Bergen, Norway, and in London on a Royal Norwegian Research Council scholarship (1960) and an Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd fellowship (1961).  On 12 July 1958 at Los Angeles, he had married with Baptist forms Lesley Hannah Paterson, also a science graduate of UWA.  Returning to UWA in 1962 as senior lecturer in organic chemistry, he developed new thermodynamic measures of solvent-solute interactions, particularly in the assignment of individual ion parameters, from the study of solutions of ionic solutes.  His inventiveness showed clearly in his unique and accurate interpretation of the contrasting behaviour of ions in hydroxylic solvents, compared to solutions in dipolar aprotic solvents.  In 1966 he was promoted to reader.

Appointed in 1968 a professorial fellow in the Research School of Chemistry, Australian National University, Canberra, Parker broadened the scope of his work to embrace the properties of metal ions, particularly copper, in aprotic solvents such as methyl cyanide.  This project led to patents both in the extraction and purification of copper metal and to research on new forms of electrical cells.  In 1973 he was appointed inaugural professor of chemistry and director of the Mineral Chemistry Research Unit at Murdoch University, Perth.  By 1982 he had produced twenty patents or provisional applications and 120 refereed publications.  The Royal Australian Chemical Institute awarded him the E. H. Rennie (1963) and H. G. Smith (1970) medals and made him a fellow in 1967.  In 1965 he was a senior Fulbright scholar.  Elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1979, he was president in 1982 of the Western Australian branch of the RACI.  He was a keen cricketer and hockey player and, like his father, played A-grade pennant for the Royal Perth Golf Club.  In 1981-82 he served on the council of Wesley College.

On 30 August 1982 Parker died suddenly in South Perth and was buried with Anglican rites in Karrakatta cemetery.  His wife and their four sons survived him.  A. R. H. Cole and D. W. Watts wrote in a memoir that 'few chemists have contributed so widely to theory, practice and application . . . Even fewer have combined this with friendship and concern for colleagues and students, thus providing others around him with the benefits of wisdom, knowledge, inspiration and good common sense'.  After his death the Mineral Chemistry Research Unit was renamed the A. J. Parker Centre and has since been incorporated into a co-operative research centre.  Its commercially oriented development, inspired by Parker’s early leadership, has included mineral extraction, metal purification and recovery, battery development and new methods for the production of solar cells.

Select Bibliography

  • Engineers Australia, 8-21 August 1980, p 7
  • Chemistry in Australia, vol 49, no 10, 1982, p 407
  • A. Cole and D. Watts, 'A. J. Parker 1933-1982', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 3, 1986, p 399
  • West Australian, 27 September 1974, p 7, 26 January 1985, p 12
  • B883, item VX33391 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Donald W. Watts, 'Parker, Sir John Edward (1904–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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