Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Priestley (1884–1961)

by J. Atherton Young

This article was published:

Henry Priestley (1884-1961), biochemist, was born on 19 June 1884 at Bradford, Yorkshire, England, son of Herbert Priestley, accountant, and his wife Ada, née Wigglesworth. The family migrated to Sydney about 1886. After attending Newington College (1898-1901), Henry enrolled at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1906; M.B., 1909; Ch.M., 1910; M.D., 1915) in the faculties of arts (1902), engineering (1903), science (1904), and medicine (1906) in which he graduated with first-class honours and the University medal.

While completing a residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1910, he won a Beit memorial fellowship (1911-12) enabling him to work at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, under (Sir) Charles Martin. There Priestley began his lifelong studies in nutrition. On 9 July 1912 he married Katie Geraldine, daughter of Rev. Adam Gray Maitland, vicar of Dudley, Worcestershire, in her father's church.

In 1913 Priestley was appointed bacteriologist at the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine, Townsville, Queensland, and carried out useful work on wide-ranging topics including a haematological investigation of children raised in North Queensland (where hookworm was prevalent), and such diseases as trachoma, Mossman fever, boomerang leg, typhoid fever and tropical sprue. While at Townsville, he was awarded his Sydney doctorate with first-class honours, the University medal and the Ethyl Talbot memorial prize for a thesis entitled 'The mechanism of the agglutinin reaction'.

In 1918 Priestley became lecturer and chief demonstrator in physiology at the University of Sydney, succeeding H. G. Chapman. Following the death in 1920 of Professor Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart Priestley was appointed associate-professor of biochemistry in 1921 under Chapman, now professor of physiology. Relations between them were difficult since Priestley was well placed to observe Chapman's disintegration. Nevertheless, he developed his own discipline and when Chapman resigned in 1928 took over as acting professor of physiology. Influenced by British advisers, in 1930 the university gave the chair to H. W. Davies. This appointment also proved to be disastrous and Priestley had virtually to run the entire department single-handedly. Eventually in 1938 he was appointed foundation McCaughey professor, and next year head of a separate department, of biochemistry. Priestley was liked and respected by his students and colleagues who appreciated his dedication at a time when professors of physiology had been anything but dedicated. He presided over and fostered his discipline at the moment of its first major expansion, and introduced compulsory work in the history and philosophy of science. He was dean of the faculty of science in 1946-48 and a fellow of the university senate in 1948.

Priestley became a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1938, was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1942-43 and a member of the local Linnean Society. During his career he served on many advisory committees including the nutrition committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council and, in 1943-44, the committee in London advising the British government on nutrition in the Commonwealth. He retired from his chair in December 1948 and was made emeritus professor.

Of a practical bent, Priestley was skilled in carpentry, joinery and wood-turning and enjoyed cooking. In 1933-36 he was active in the university's Rover scout crew. He collected hundreds of varieties of shrubs in his Chatswood garden and became interested in hybridization experiments. In retirement he took up weaving, becoming president of the Spinners' and Weavers' Guild of New South Wales, and assisted his friend Dr Mervyn Archdall with the Medical Journal of Australia.

Priestley died of cancer on 28 February 1961 and his wife a day later. They were survived by their two sons. His most enduring monuments at the university are the department of biochemistry itself, and the B.Sc. (Med.) degree, a research training programme for medical students, which, against opposition, he fought to have established in 1948, only months before his retirement.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Young et al (eds), Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine (Syd, 1984)
  • Medical Journal Australia, 10 June 1961, p 875
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal and Proceedings, 95, 1961, p 108
  • Sydney University Students' Representative Council, Hermes, 23, 1917, p 225.

Citation details

J. Atherton Young, 'Priestley, Henry (1884–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 April 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

Life Summary [details]


19 June, 1884
Bradford, Yorkshire, England


28 February, 1961 (aged 76)

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