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Leonard William (Len) Weickhardt (1908–2000)

by Ian D. Rae

This article was published online in 2023

Dr Len W. Weickhardt in academic robes, Norman Wodetski

Dr Len W. Weickhardt in academic robes, Norman Wodetski

Melbourne University Archives

Leonard William Weickhardt (1908–2000), chemist, company director, and university administrator, was born on 2 April 1908 at Ballarat, Victoria, and named Willhelm Leonard, youngest of three sons of Victorian-born parents Carl Philip Weickhardt, assistant clerk of courts, and his wife Elizabeth Constance, née Cross. After his father died in 1914 the family moved to suburban Melbourne, where Len attended Prahran and Caulfield State schools, Swinburne Junior Technical College (1919–23), and the Working Men’s College (1924–27), where, enabled by scholarships, he completed a diploma of applied chemistry.

At the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1931; MSc 1932), Weickhardt studied chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy (physics), graduating with first-class honours in 1930. Supported by scholarships, he then completed a master’s degree in chemistry. Research grants and an appointment as a demonstrator (1934–35) enabled him to continue research with the head of department, Ernst Johannes Hartung, with whom he produced a film demonstrating the movement of charged colloid particles in an electric field.

In 1935 Weickhardt left the university to enter the chemical industry, believing it might offer better opportunities to match ‘my chemical knowledge and inner urge to get things done’ (Weickhardt 1991, 22). He was employed by Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd (ICIANZ) and sent to work for three years with the parent company, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), in Britain. There he gained experience in chemical processes that might be introduced to Australia, such as acid, alkali, and chlorine production, and the oxidation of ammonia to form nitric acid. On 30 October 1937 he married Florence Mary Blenkharn, a schoolteacher, at the parish church, Windermere, England.

Returning to Australia in June 1938, Weickhardt worked at the ICIANZ factory at Yarraville, Melbourne, where operations were centred on the electrolysis of brine to produce caustic soda and chlorine. In 1943 he was appointed works manager for production of the anti-malarial drug sulphamerazine at Deer Park. From London, ICI had advised against production of the drug in Australia and declined to provide details of the eight-step synthesis, but the young ICIANZ chemists, guided by A. Killen Macbeth, an organic chemist at the University of Adelaide, constructed the plant and achieved production within seven months. This was the first of a number of occasions on which Weickhardt, backed by the local board, asserted the independent views of the Australian company against those of its British parent.

After a stint as works manager (1945–50) of the ICIANZ plant at Botany, New South Wales, Weickhardt returned to Melbourne and to appointments as manager of the chemical group (1948–50), personnel controller (1950–53), and general manager (technical) (1953–55), culminating in his appointment to the board as technical and research director in 1955. With the general manager (research) Dirk Ziedler, he oversaw the establishment of the Central Research Laboratories at Ascot Vale in 1956, which were responsible for several internationally significant innovations.

Weickhardt was a fellow (1944) and president (1958–59) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), and a recipient (1968) of its Leighton memorial medal. A member of the Martin committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia, he was a frequent participant in national forums and seminars, presenting an industrial perspective on the importance of appropriate education. In a report written for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, he wrote that ‘industry and productivity will not have their full growth in Australia until we consciously set about the long-term education of the community so that attitudes of mind are created, able and willing to grasp more fully the complexities of social and economic responsibility’ (Weickhardt 1962, 25–26).

Perhaps the most scholarly of Australia’s senior industrialists, Weickhardt had maintained his connection with the University of Melbourne, and in 1963 was elected by graduates to the university council. He became deputy chancellor in 1966, then succeeded Sir Robert Menzies as chancellor (1972–78). In 1976 he was appointed CBE and awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the university. He was also the recipient of an honorary doctorate of arts and sciences (1975) from the Victoria Institute of Colleges, and was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, and the Australian Institute of Management.

Having retired from ICIANZ in 1970, Weickhardt was a director of several science-related companies, including Nylex Corporation Ltd (1968–80), Sidney Cooke Ltd (1970–80), and Rocla Industries Ltd (chairman 1970–80). Later he served as president (1979–82) of the Royal Melbourne Hospital Board and chairman (1980–89) of the Melbourne committee for the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. His long membership (1954–79) of the council of Camberwell Grammar School, where his sons were educated, led to his appointment in 1973 to the National Council of Independent Schools (chairman 1977–79).

In 1989 the RACI published Weickhardt’s biography of David Orme Masson (1858–1937), the first professor of chemistry at the University of Melbourne, for which he won the RACI’s Archibald Ollé literature prize. He also wrote four entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including those on Masson and Hartung. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1990) and survived by his two sons, he died on 14 July 2000 at Hawthorn and was cremated. A memorial service was held at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Canterbury, on 10 August. He was remembered as ‘a man of great intellect, persistence, diligence, and high ethical standards’ and for ‘his kindness and consideration for those around him’ (Nossal and Kolm 2000, 7). His son Philip was chief executive officer (1997–2001) of Orica Ltd (formerly ICIANZ). In 2010 the RACI established the Weickhardt medal for contributions to Australian economic advancement through work in chemistry.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Kolm, J. E., and P. R. Wilkinson. ‘Obituary: Leonard William Weickhardt.’ Chemistry in Australia, 68 (2001), 37
  • Nossal, Sir Gustav, and Jan Kolm. ‘Leonard William Weickhardt.’ Age (Melbourne), 10 August 2000, 7
  • Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. ‘L. W. Weickhardt: President of the Institute, 1958–59.’ 26, no. 1 (1959): 4–5
  • Weickhardt, L. W. The Future of Australian Manufacturing Industry. Melbourne: Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 1962
  • Weickhardt, L. W. ‘Notes for an Autobiographical Memoir.’ Unpublished manuscript, 1991. State Library of Victoria
  • Weickhardt, L. W. ‘The Role of the Diplomate in Chemical Industry.’ Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute 34, no. 6 (June 1967): 141–45

View the list of ADB entries written by Leonard William (Len) Weickhardt

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian D. Rae, 'Weickhardt, Leonard William (Len) (1908–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/weickhardt-leonard-william-len-31977/text39454, published online 2023, accessed online 13 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Dr Len W. Weickhardt in academic robes, Norman Wodetski

Dr Len W. Weickhardt in academic robes, Norman Wodetski

Melbourne University Archives

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Weickhardt, Willhelm Leonard
Birth

2 April, 1908
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Death

14 July, 2000 (aged 92)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

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