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Price, James Robert (Jerry) (1912–1999)

by T. H. Spurling

This article was published online in 2023

James Robert Price (1912–1999), organic chemist and science administrator, was born on 25 March 1912 at Kadina, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, eldest of three children of South Australian-born parents Mary Katherine, née Hughes, and her husband Edgar James Price, bank manager. Jerry spent most of his childhood at Mount Gambier, where his father managed a local bank branch before starting an accounting business. He attended a local Church of England school and then Umpherston College, winning a Vansittart scholarship to complete his secondary education at St Peter’s College, Adelaide. Beginning as a boarder, he lived with an aunt after the Depression diminished family finances. His family knew him as Bob, but at St Peter’s he became Jerry, a name that would stick. To fund his tertiary studies, he applied for and won a cadetship in the chemistry department of the University of Adelaide (BSc Hons, 1934; MSc, 1935), where he was awarded a David Murray scholarship (1933). He was influenced by Alexander Killen Macbeth, the Angas professor of chemistry, who stimulated his interest in natural product chemistry.

Winning an 1851 Exhibition scholarship in 1935, Price travelled to England to pursue a doctorate at Magdalen College, Oxford (DPhil, 1939), on the chemistry of plant pigments, under the supervision of (Sir) Robert Robinson. After completing his studies, he became head of the chemistry section at the John Innes Horticultural Institute near Wimbledon, where he continued his work on plant pigments. He was granted a Rockefeller scholarship to study in the United States of America in 1939, but the scholarships were cancelled when World War II broke out. On 23 March 1940 at St Andrew’s Church of England, Wimbledon, he married Joyce Ethel Brooke, a graduate in botany whom he had met in 1933 at the University of Adelaide. From September 1941 he worked for the chemical inspection department of the Ministry of Supply, supervising the work of five Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd factories in Scotland that were making explosives and munitions.

In 1945 Price was recruited to the division of industrial chemistry of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, later CSIRO), to lead a survey of Australian plants for potentially pharmaceutically active alkaloids. He and his family arrived in Australia in September 1945. The first publication of the project, a co-authored letter to Nature entitled ‘Alkaloids of the Australian Rutaceae,’ was published in 1948 and was much cited. He realised that to undertake thorough chemical studies on the many Australian plants known to give alkaloid-positive tests would require many scientists, and he solicited support from the chemistry departments of the universities. His great ability to enlist people to his projects was to help him in the next two phases of his career.

Having been elected a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute in 1953 and gained a doctorate in science from the University of Adelaide in 1954, Price was awarded the H. G. Smith medal by the RACI in 1956, and elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1959. He understood the value of the professional society, the RACI, in developing effective interactions among chemists in industry, academia, and CSIRO. From 1962 to 1964 he was federal president of the institute. He pursued an organisational structure that brought together disparate regional interests and nationwide technological and scientific activities.

Appointed chief of the CSIRO division of organic chemistry in 1961, Price joined the organisation’s executive in 1966. He immediately set himself the task of modernising the management of CSIRO to prepare it for changing times. In 1970 he became chairman. His key reform was to introduce processes to enable the executive to be better informed on the activities of the organisation. This allowed the executive to allocate funds according to its priorities and to be able to counter accusations that CSIRO was doing too much curiosity-driven research. In 1969 he chaired the Australian Academy of Science’s national committee for chemistry, and won the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s Leighton memorial medal.

The times did change. In 1972 Rex Connor was appointed minister for minerals and energy in the Whitlam government. Although CSIRO sought to work with the Department of Minerals and Energy on an urgent program on coal hydrogenation and on other programs of interest to the department, in June 1975 the government announced that CSIRO’s mineral and solar energy research activities would be transferred to the department. Price immediately commenced a campaign to persuade the government to reverse the decision. He gave an impassioned speech to staff in Melbourne on 3 July 1975, ending by saying: ‘We have explained in very clear terms that the ad hoc dismemberment of CSIRO in this way could be disastrous to Australia’s scientific output for years to come’ (Collins et al. 2004, 113).

Although Price told his wife that he expected to be sacked after the speech, he was not, and CSIRO survived intact. He had ‘preserved the integrity of CSIRO and enhanced his reputation both inside and outside the organization’ (Collins et al. 2004, 113). Appointed KBE in 1976, Sir Robert retired in 1977. A naturally shy but courageous person with an adventurous spirit, he had learnt to engage effectively with all levels of science and government. He became a director of Humes Ltd (1977–81), as well as serving on the Clunies Ross Foundation and the council of Monash University, but he stepped back from public duties after he was hit by a truck and badly injured while walking to his car in 1986. In retirement he enjoyed growing native Australian plants. A lecture series named in his honour was established by CSIRO in 1990. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 8 March 1999 at Shoreham, Victoria, and was cremated. His son Don (1945–2013) also became a scientist, joining CSIRO’s division of applied physics in 1982.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Collins, David J., Gregory W. Simpson, David H. Solomon, and Thomas H. Spurling. ‘James Robert Price 1912–1999.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 15, no. 1 (2004): 95–120
  • Cornforth, John. ‘Sir Robert Price 1912–1999.’ Chemistry in Australia 66, no. 7 (August 1999): 46
  • Frizell, Helen. ‘CSIRO Chief Looks Ahead After Crisis.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 1975, 7
  • Solomon, David. ‘Chemist Defied “Destruction of CSIRO.”’ Australian, 14 April 1999, 16
  • Ward, Colin. ‘Sir James Robert (Jerry) Price [1912–1999].’ CSIROpedia. 24 January 2014. Accessed 1 March 2022. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

T. H. Spurling, 'Price, James Robert (Jerry) (1912–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 11 June 2023.

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