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Sir David Ronald (Dirk) Zeidler (1918–1998)

by Peter Yule

This article was published online in 2022

David Zeidler, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1973

David Zeidler, Herald and Weekly Times, c.1973

State Library of Victoria, 49347911

Sir David Ronald ‘Dirk’ Zeidler (1918–1998), chemist, chemical engineer, and industrialist, was born on 18 March 1918 at Carlton, Melbourne, second of three children of German-born Otto William Zeidler, master mariner, and his New Zealand-born wife Hilda Maude, née Hunter. His father had settled in Sydney in 1910 and was naturalised in 1913. From Mont Albert Central School, David won a Victorian Department of Education scholarship and attended (1932–35) Scotch College, Hawthorn, earning the nickname ‘Dirk’ after his class studied the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog. At the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1939; MSc, 1940) he combined engineering subjects with a major in chemistry, deliberately selecting subjects relating to chemical engineering, a discipline still in its infancy. He was awarded first-class honours and a scholarship for his pioneering master’s research involving complex chemical syntheses.

Zeidler joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 1941, becoming a protégé of Ian Wark, the head of the division of industrial chemistry, who that year appointed him acting head of the chemical engineering section. After research leave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States of America, he was appointed permanent head in 1947. In eleven years at the CSIR (from 1949, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), he led a busy research program, initially focused on wartime requirements. He had management and engineering responsibility for developing practical applications for many of the organisation’s research breakthroughs, ranging from shrink-proofing wool to the extraction of rare earth compounds from mineral sands. On 20 November 1943 at the Scotch College chapel he married June Susan Broadhurst, who had relinquished her science studies at the University of Melbourne to take up wartime work as a metrologist at the Munitions Supply Laboratories, Maribyrnong.

In 1952 Zeidler was appointed research manager at Australia’s largest chemical company, Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd (ICIANZ, from 1971 ICI Australia Ltd). He quickly built up an active research group and oversaw the construction of Australia’s largest industrial research laboratories at Ascot Vale, which were opened by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies in 1956. As a manager, Zeidler insisted on rigorous scientific standards, while encouraging a spirit of innovation. The group’s research covered the full range of ICIANZ’s activities: plastics, paints, explosives, and veterinary and agricultural chemicals, with its most outstanding invention being the flame ionisation detector, which was licensed to more than forty companies around the world.

Following business and management training at Harvard Business School in 1963, Zeidler was promoted rapidly through the management ranks, ultimately becoming a managing director (1971–80) and chairman (1973–80) of ICI Australia. His leadership of the company coincided with the end of the lengthy postwar economic boom, but he remained focused on expansion. Blending local research with international technological developments, he led Australia’s chemical industry in its transition from basic inorganic chemicals to modern petrochemical production. He was also responsible for the company’s explosives division’s switch from nitroglycerine to ammonium nitrate-based products, enabling it to become one of the world’s leading explosives manufacturers.

Plans for a large petrochemical complex at Redcliff, South Australia, were abandoned in 1975. This highlighted a major continuing dilemma for ICI Australia—the questionable economics of manufacturing products requiring massive capital investment for Australia’s small domestic market. Most of ICI’s products benefited from tariffs on competing imports, but by the 1970s companies were finding it increasingly difficult to justify their levels of protection to the Tariff Board. Under Zeidler’s leadership, the company was able to avoid the sudden withdrawal of protection that damaged many manufacturing industries, while also adapting its operations to survive and prosper in the face of foreign competition. By the time he retired in 1980, ICI Australia had about thirteen thousand employees and its profit had increased from $22.6 million in 1973 to $66.5 million. It maintained its focus on research and development and dominated the Australian chemicals industry.

With an exceptional eye for ability, Zeidler surrounded himself with teams of gifted and highly motivated people, who responded with enthusiasm to his quiet but demanding management style. He had a formidable intellect, determination, a strong work ethic, and an ability to get to the heart of issues. Yet he was far from the popular image of a ruthless business executive: an unassuming man, he had impeccable manners, a wry sense of humour, and deep compassion for those who encountered misfortune.

Zeidler was invited to serve on a wide range of governmental, educational, and charitable committees and boards, and was also a board member of several blue-chip companies including the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd (BHP) (1978–88) and Westpac Banking Corporation (1982–91). He retained close ties to the sciences, being a foundational fellow (1975) and president (1984–88) of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and president (1987–88) of the international Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences. He was also a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (1954), the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Australian Institute of Management, and the Australian Academy of Science (1985). He was appointed CBE in 1971, knighted in 1979, and appointed AC in 1990.

Sir David had a happy and fulfilling family life and enjoyed skiing, gardening, and tennis. After years of ill health with Parkinson’s disease, he died on 12 March 1998 at his home at Malvern and was cremated; his wife and their four daughters survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at more than $4 million.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Beale, Bob. Engineering a Legacy: Memories of the Journey of CSIRO Chemical Engineering. Clayton, Vic.: CSIRO Minerals, 2005
  • Circle: ICI Australia Ltd (Melbourne). ‘Sir David Retires.’ 18 March 1980, 1–3
  • Gottliebsen, Robert. ‘Sir David Zeidler, Chief Executive.’ Age (Melbourne), 25 March 1998, 16
  • Neill, K. G. Making the Future: A History of ICI Australia Research Group. Ascot Vale, Vic.: Research Group ICI Australia, 1989
  • Wark, Ian W. ‘The CSIRO Division of Industrial Chemistry, 1940–1952.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 4, no. 2 (November 1979): 7–41
  • Yule, Peter. ‘David Zeidler (1918–1998)’ (2005). Accessed 4 June 2021. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Yule, 'Zeidler, Sir David Ronald (Dirk) (1918–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 23 June 2024.

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