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Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890–1980)

by H. H. G. McKern

This article was published:

Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), by unknown photographer, 1948-55

Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), by unknown photographer, 1948-55

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 05909

Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), chemist and museum director, was born on 4 August 1890 in Sydney, eldest of four sons of David de Ramon Penfold, a Brisbane-born law clerk, and his wife Elizabeth, née Emanuel, who came from Sydney. His father died aged 37, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. Obliged to leave school at 14, Arthur was employed as an office-boy by an English paint firm. In 1906 he joined M. H. Lauchlan & Co., paint manufacturers' agents, where he learned book-keeping, becoming accountant in 1908.

Curious about the chemistry and technology of the oils, resins, pigments, paints and varnishes with which he was dealing, Penfold enrolled that year in evening classes in chemistry at Sydney Technical College where he became a consistent prizewinner. Stimulated by the lectures of H. G. Smith, economic chemist at the Technological Museum, Sydney, Penfold also began to investigate the chemistry of plant substances, especially volatile oils. In 1915 he became research chemist and assistant works manager to the eucalyptus oil distillers, Gillard Gordon Ltd. On 17 August he married Eunice Gilbert Gardner at St James' Anglican Church.

In 1919 Penfold was appointed Smith's assistant at the Technological Museum, and next year, on Smith's retirement, economic chemist. The phytochemical work for which Penfold achieved world recognition was largely in the field of the volatile or the 'essential' oils of the Australian flora. He isolated and characterized many new chemical compounds which attracted overseas attention. As early as 1921 he demonstrated the molecular structure of piperitone, and how menthol and thymol could be synthesized from it. He also contributed to the understanding of chemical variation within plant species (his 'physiological forms'). He published some hundred original research papers, many in collaboration with F. R. Morrison, mainly in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and with his botanical colleague J. L. Willis The Eucalypts: Botany, Chemistry, Cultivation and Utilization (London, 1961). He also substantially contributed to Ernest Guenther's six-volume work, The Essential Oils (New York, 1948-52).

In 1927 Penfold was appointed curator and in 1948 director of the museum. Although he remained active in research, he saw his chief responsibility to be for the museum as a whole. In 1938 he was awarded a grant by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study science museums in Europe and the United States of America. He was an innovator in Australia in museum techniques: in the 1930s he introduced fluorescent illumination of displays and in 1950 he had the first planetarium in Australia set up. Legislation enacted in 1945 rewarded his efforts to have the museum placed under the control of a trust; in 1950 it was renamed the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Active in scientific societies, Penfold was a founder and first secretary (1913-48) of the Sydney Technical College Chemical Society, a council-member and president (1935) of the Royal Society, a member of the Standards Association of Australia and a founder and first secretary-treasurer of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of Australia and New Zealand in 1937-55.

During World War II Penfold was seconded to act as deputy director for New South Wales on the Commonwealth government's Scientific Liaison Bureau. In 1943 he was appointed to the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and to the State government's Plastics Committee; in 1945 he visited North America and Europe to investigate recent developments in the plastics industry. After retiring from the museum in 1955 he spent some years with Monsanto Chemicals (Australia) Ltd, plastic manufacturers, and he was a life member and first technical secretary (1961-64) of the Plastics Institute of Australia. In 1946 he became foundation chairman of the Australian section of the Oil and Colour Chemists' Association. He was awarded the H. G. Smith memorial medal in 1934 by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1951, and in 1954 the Fritzsche award from the American Chemical Society.

Penfold was a keen traveller, within and outside Australia, observing and recording information of value. Slim and spare of build, he was health conscious and opposed the use of tobacco. He possessed a quick mind, a capacious and retentive memory, and an extraordinary capacity for work. Shortcomings in diligence, efficiency and punctuality aroused him to outbursts of wrath (which subsided as quickly as they arose), but he was usually genial, generous and helpful to his associates.

His wife died in 1957; on 18 June 1959 at Darlinghurst Penfold married her sister Lorna May Gardner. Survived by a daughter of his first marriage, he died on 16 June 1980 in Canberra and was cremated with Anglican rites. A portrait bust executed in black plastic is held by the author.

Select Bibliography

  • Perfumery and Essential Oil Record, 59, 1968, p 501
  • Australian Standard, 1, 1980, p 19
  • Journal of the Oil and Colour Chemists' Association, 63, 1980, p 421
  • H. H. G. McKern, ‘Arthur de Ramon Penfold’, Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal and Proceedings, 113, 1980, p 100, and ‘Arthur de Ramon Penfold, 1890-1980’, Chemistry in Australia, 48, 1981, p 327, see also vol 47, 1980, p 396
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Jan 1956.

Citation details

H. H. G. McKern, 'Penfold, Arthur de Ramon (1890–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), by unknown photographer, 1948-55

Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), by unknown photographer, 1948-55

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 05909

Life Summary [details]


4 August, 1890
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 June, 1980 (aged 89)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.