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Keith Leonard Sutherland (1916–1980)

by David Philip Miller

This article was published:

Keith Leonard Sutherland (1916-1980), industrial chemist, was born on 17 January 1916 at North Carlton, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Alexander Philip Sutherland, a clerk in the public service, and his wife Irene Bertha, née Barker. Educated at Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1937; M.Sc., 1941; D.Sc., 1948), Keith joined (Sir) Ian Wark's research group in the chemistry department. Helped by sponsorship from mining companies, he carried out research into mineral flotation. In 1940 he trained civilians to deal with unexploded bombs. At the Methodist Church, Caulfield, on 7 December that year he married Marjory Evelyn O'Connor, a typiste; their marriage was to end in divorce.

When Wark moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1941 as director of the division of industrial chemistry, Sutherland was appointed head of the division's physical chemistry section. War-related research allowed him to demonstrate his versatility. In 1942, with John Stuart Anderson, he undertook to supply zinc arsenide for testing the efficiency of gas masks. The chemical was prepared on the roof of the university's chemistry building by the hazardous process of stirring arsenic into molten zinc. Both men suffered rashes and hair loss, taking more than a year to recover. Sutherland also worked with Enid Plante on the separation of medicinally useful ergot from rye to overcome the limited supply of the drug occasioned by World War II. In 1943 they built a pilot flotation plant and separated much of that year's crop. Sutherland was awarded his doctorate and the David Syme prize by the University of Melbourne in 1948 for his thesis, 'Physics and Chemistry of the Flotation Process'.

Although versatile, Sutherland had a special talent for the more difficult aspects of the theory of flotation systems and surface chemistry. Awarded a Davy-Faraday fellowship, he went to London in 1947 to pursue research with (Sir) Eric Rideal at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ph.D., 1950, University of London). Sutherland did his most fundamental work during those years. His 1948 paper on the kinetics of flotation processes, published in the American Journal of Physical and Colloid Chemistry (1948), continues to be cited.

In 1950 Sutherland was induced to return to Australia to resume his former post at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. He was to become head of the new division of physical chemistry in 1958. His flotation work culminated in his co-authorship with Wark of the revised and enlarged edition of Principles of Flotation (Melbourne, 1955), first published by Wark in 1938. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute bestowed on Sutherland the H. G. Smith memorial medal in 1957. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1959.

That year he was appointed director of research in Sydney for the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd, a position which he held until he retired in 1978. The major events of his tenure were the establishment in 1960 of the David North Plant Research Centre in Brisbane (where a phytotron was operated for plant-breeding research into sugar cane) and the construction in 1962 of C.S.R.'s industrial research laboratory at Roseville, Sydney. He generated new projects, helped to found (1965) the Australian Industrial Research Group and encouraged his scientists to join learned societies.

In the 1960s, while involved in the management of Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef, Sutherland became interested in malacology and accumulated an important shell collection. His interest involved him with the Australian Museum, Sydney: he was an honorary curator in the malacology department, a trustee (from 1966) and president of the trustees (1972-74). He enjoyed playing squash and tennis. On 14 February 1968 at the registrar general's office, Sydney, he married Mary Bickart, née Lindley, a secretary and a divorcee who had previously changed her surname to Sutherland by deed poll.

A part-time member (1965-71) of the C.S.I.R.O. executive, Sutherland served in Indonesia as a consultant with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an experience which gave him an abiding interest in using science and technology to assist developing countries. He delivered the Liversidge lecture at the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science's congress in 1970 and served as the association's president in 1978. He was also a fellow (1974) of the R.A.C.I., president (1975) of its New South Wales branch and a founding member (1974) of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. In 1977 he was appointed O.B.E. Although gravely ill, he chaired a committee in 1979 that reported to the Australian government on lead tetraethyl in urban pollution, writing most of the report himself.

Sutherland died of cancer on 26 January 1980 at Wahroonga and was cremated with the forms of the Uniting Church. His wife survived him, as did the daughter and three sons of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol 4, no 2, 1979, p 7
  • Chemistry in Australia, vol 47, no 5, May 1980, p 211
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 5, no 2, 1981, p 79
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1977, 30 Jan 1980
  • R. I. Nicholson, Research in CSR (typescript, file note 1345, CSR Library, Sydney)
  • Wark papers (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • CSIRO files, A8520, items PH/SUT004 parts 1 & 2, PH/SUT004B and PH/SUT00E (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Philip Miller, 'Sutherland, Keith Leonard (1916–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 January, 1916
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


26 January, 1980 (aged 64)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.