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Australian Academy of Science
Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

Albert Ernest Alexander 1914-1970

By R.J.W. Le Fevre

Albert Ernest Alexander was born on 5 January, 1914, at Ringwood, in Hampshire, the last but one of a family of seven children. His father, William Albert Alexander, was a master builder, continuing a business long established in the district. His mother, Beatrice (nee Daw), had been a teacher. The death of her husband in 1916 left her with heavy responsibilities which she faced with determination. The three eldest girls had to leave school when they were fourteen, the two brothers who came next were able to stay until they reached sixteen; only Albert Ernest, the youngest boy, could be given the full education he desired. From the Brockenhurst County School he proceeded in 1931 to the University of Reading, graduating in 1934 with First Class Honours in Chemistry and an Open Scholarship to King's College, Cambridge.

During his first year at Cambridge he read for Part 11 of the Natural Science Tripos in Chemistry. Professor R.G.W. Norrish writes: 'I was his supervisor and from the beginning was greatly impressed by his high intellectual ability and depth of understanding; he obtained a First Class in the Tripos Examination, and-as one of the examiners-I can now tell you, after all this time, that he was easily at the top of the list'.

A King's College Senior Scholarship, a D.S.I.R. grant for research, and a Ramsay Memorial Fellowship, followed in 1935-36. Alexander joined the Departrnent of Colloid Science to work under Professor E.K. (now Sir Eric) Rideal. Professor S.F. Dainton recalls this Cambridge period:

...when the Langmuir trough was beginning to be exploited for the investigation of the size and shape of large molecules...Alexander soon proved himself to be an extremely neat and clean worker - both attributes being necessary for the trough to be successfully operated; and there can be no doubt that at that time Alexander was one of the best Ph.D. students that Rideal had.

Life at Cambridge made a deep impression on the young graduate from Reading: much of his future attitude to science and research was then determined, Rideal's own philosophy being partly responsible. Rideal recognised(1) the fact

that many biological problems require the methods and ideas of physical chemistry for their complete solution. This is particularly so with the branches of biology which are relevant to surface chemistry, colloids and macromolecules. In the 1930's it was exceptional to find physical chemists in biological departments or biologists in chemical laboratories. Moreover, the average biologist was not sufficiently trained im chemistry and mathematics to be able to carry out physico-chemical research. Equally the average physical chemist was not usually sufficiently aware of the needs of biology to make useful contributions in this field. Thus one of the ideas of creating a bridging laboratory was to bring physical chemists interested not only in developing the fundamentals of surface and colloid chemistry but also in applying them to biological systems, into contact with biologists who appreciated both the need and the direction which these studies should take. Professor Rideal was an ardent believer in this doctrine and devoted much energy to its propagation.

To Rideal's influence and leadership was added the stimulation provided by a remarkable group of contemporaries assembled in the School of Colloid Science. Most of them were destined to achieve success and recognition for their contributions to physical chemistry. They included H.W. Melville, the Farkas brothers, F.J. Wilkins, Gwyn Williams, J.K. Roberts, H.K. Whalley, R.M. Barter, R.C.L. Bosworth, J.H. Schulman, A.H. Hughes, J.S. Mitchell, G. Gee, F.R. Eirich, D.D. Eley, T. Teorell, and many others, now Knights, Professors, Fellows of the Royal Society, etc. The period was a vintage one. Haydon and Ottewill(2) describe the numerous branches of surface and colloid chemistry studied between 1935 and 1946:

The work on mono-layers at air-liquid interfaces was extended in many directions and was carried out by J.H. Schulman, A.E. Alexander, S. Marsden, D.G. Dervichian, E. Stenhagen and T. Teorell. Built-up multilayers were examined by J.J. Bikerman and protein membranes by O. Gatty. J.S. Mitchell, now Regius Professor of Physics in the University, studied photo-chemical reactions in monolayers. Polymerisation reactions became the special interest of H.W. Melville, G. Gee and R.F. Tuckett, and the sorption of gases by solids by R.M. Barrer. Catalytic problems and gas adsorption continued to be examined by J.K. Roberts and further work was published by J.S. Wang and W.J.C. Orr. During this period work on the electrical properties of colloids was undertaken by I. Kemp, S. Levine, G.P. Dube, R.B. Dean and O. Gatty.

Alexander's first researches (described in two papers, respectively with Schulman and Rideal, in 1937) concerned the differences between reactions at interfaces and those in bulk. The hydrolyses of long-chain esters, spread as films on aqueous alkaline or acid substrates, were followed by observing either surface pressures or surface potentials. Molecular orientations could be changed by compressing the films (i.e. by reducing the areas per molecule); although this altered the absolute reaction velocities only slightly it raised the activation energies above the values found in expanded monolayers or homogeneous solutions. The work had biological undertones since the natural breakdowns and resyntheses of fats most probably involve interfacial reactions.

A third paper, also published in 1937, shows even more clearly a leaning towards biology. It described the examination of a number of porphyrins and closely related compounds, some containing a central co-ordinated metal atom (chlorophyll-a and b, haemin, magnesium naphthalocyanine, iron phthalocyanine, etc.), and some without (protoporphyrin, bilirubin, mesoporphyrin dimethyl ester, etc.), as monolayers on aqueous substrates. Mostly these molecules formed unstable solid-condensed films with the conjugated ring systems vertically oriented and close-packed; their limiting surface areas were consistent with known structural formulae.

In many subsequent investigations Alexander used force-area and potential-area measurements on films spread on water to gain some insight into the orientation and structure of polar head-groups as they actually exist when immersed in the underlying aqueous media. Early examples were the demonstrations in 1939 that, in contact with water, ester groups lost their resonance and triazo-groups became rectilinear.

Two other notable, but different, contributions from this period were studies of the halogenation of long-chain phenols in films, of the deposition of multilayers from monolayers on water on to polished chromium plates, and of a chemical reaction taking place within a solid multilayer so mounted.

Alexander was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1938 and thereupon went on a holiday - hitch-hiking in Scandinavia - in the company of F.S. Dainton. Dainton, recalling some thirty-four years acquaintance with Alexander, says: 'We were both research students in Cambridge who had migrated from other universities, and we were therefore drawn together by our common sense of being immigrants. Under the influence of discoveries that we shared many interests, e.g. walking, tennis, squash, and a love of good company and conversation, we soon became friends. It was a friendship which lasted throughout life and had many episodes including...living for some seven years in adjacent roads in Cambridge so that our families were young together, and for years playing an almost regular weekly game of squash'. Dainton continues: 'At that time there was quite a link between Rideal's laboratory and Svedberg's in Uppsala, and after our joint visit to the latter laboratory in August, 1938, Alex decided...to spend as long as he could in Uppsala working jointly with Torsten Teorell'. A Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship helped to make this possible, and during December, 1938, Alexander entered the Institute of Medical Chemistry of the University of Uppsala.

Two papers ('A Study of Films at the Liquid/Liquid Interface, Parts I and II' and 'A Study of Films at the Liquid/Liquid Interface, Part III - A Specific Effect of Calcium Ions on Kephalin Monolayers') record results obtained in Sweden. The objective was to extend knowledge on insoluble films at oil/water interfaces since these would be more related to natural cell-membrane situations than were the often-studied films at air/water interfaces. As a preliminary step the technique for the measurement of oil/water interfacial tensions had to be improved. This done, force-area curies were plotted for gliadin, serum albumin, lecithin, Iysolecithin, and sodium cetyl sulphate at a benzene/water boundary; they were seen to be in conformity with the Langmuir hyperbolic van der Waals' equation of state for expanded films. Finally, with Aborg, the behaviour of salts (NaCl, KCl, MGCl2, and CaCl2) towards kephalin (a phosphatide cell lipoid) when spread as a monolayer at benzene/water interfaces was reported. A stabilising action of calcium ions was noted, more pronounced than had previously been seen with lecithin films. The authors comment:

...that of the various inorganic ions which affect cell and organ functions, calcium seems to play a role of first importance, being necessary, for instance, for the integrity of cell membranes, for normal irritability of the nervous apparatus, and for blood clotting.

The collaboration with Teorell was interrupted in September, 1939, by the outbreak of war. The nine months in Uppsala had, however, given Alexander not only a love of Scandinavia but also a lasting conviction that surface chemistry was likely to be of fundamental importance in biochemistry and physiology.

He returned to Cambridge. A Thesis: 'Molecular Orientation and Reactions in Monolayers' brought him election, in October 1939, as a Fellow of King's College. Research was resumed in the Department of Colloid Science, and continued steadily during the war years. Fourteen publications appeared between 1940 and 1945. They dealt inter alia with films at liquid-liquid interfaces, interfacial tension measurements, surface ageing phenomena, the structures of films and liquid surfaces, the role of hydrogen bonding in condensed monomolecular films, applications of the Gibbs Adsorption Equation to solutions of paraffin-chain salts and to colloidal electrolytes, the effects of soaps and synthetic wetting agents on the biological activities of phenols, the penetrations of molecules through membranes and surfaces, and - in some detail - the properties of protein films.

Work connected with the war was also undertaken. Under the Ministry of Supply a no. of "extra-mural" research teams had been established in various of the U.K. universities to assist with problems arising from the Services, Government Departments, etc. Alexander joined a group, formed around Rideal and Schulmanat Cambridge, which investigated smoke screening, incendiary devices-the construction of sticky bombs, the blacking out of large areas of water with surface films of coal dust, and other applications of aerosols and colloids. Such projects were then mostly classified as 'secret'; some of them, although 'applied' in character, had interesting 'fundamental' aspects (e.g. questions concerning the structures and gelling properties of aluminium soaps, or the autoxidation of hydrocarbons on cement particles) which were to occupy Alexander's attention for several post-war years.

He volunteered as a Gas Officer in 1940 but, chemical warfare being inactive, was not called up. He joined the Home Guard and served in this for four years, 1940-43.

In 1944 Alexander became one of the two Assistant Directors of Research in the Colloid Science Department (G.B.B.M. Sutherland, now Master of Emmanuel College, was the other). Work on monolayers at liquid-liquid interfaces, and other aspects of "wet" surface and colloid chemistry, was thereby stimulated. Friendly relations with industry and the chemical professions were encouraged and strengthened. During 1945 a Summer School, largely organised by Alexander in collaboration with the Birmingham and Midland Section of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, was a notable product of this policy. More than 200 people, academic and industrial, of diverse ages and interests, were brought together, amidst the beauty and traditions of Cambridge, for a 'refresher week' of Colloid Science. The 'subjects studied intensively in theory and practice included monolayers and multilayers, foams, emulsions, adsorption, infra-red spectrometry, membrane equilibrium, the ultra-centrifuge, the ultra-microscope, and chromatography. Dr Perutz showed the electron microscope and X-ray diffraction camera, and an outstanding feature was the demonstration by research workers in the Colloid Science Department of their equipment and of the work in progress....'. The course was unanimously declared a noteworthy success.(3) Reprints of the lectures, edited by Alexander, were later produced as an 86 page book by the Chemical Publishing Co., N.Y. under the title Colloid Science.

A no. of summaries of recent work on surface chemistry were published by Alexander about this time. They dealt with such matters as the structures, spreading, and phase changes of monolayers; reactions within and evaporation through monolayers were usefully reviewed. Applications of monolayer techniques to other branches of science-to organic and physical chemistry, to classical colloidal systems such as emulsions, and to biology-were described and illustrated. Alexander's growing inclination towards biological problems can be seen clearly in the studies he undertook conjointly with Trim, Soltys, Agar, Tomlinson, and others on the anthelmintic and anti-bacterial actions of soap-phenol mixtures. The apparent contradiction that the activities of such mixtures were, in general, accelerated by low, but inhibited by high, concentrations of soap, was explained by identifying soap-phenol complex formations which enhanced bio-activities up to the critical concentrations for micelles; with more soap the competition between soap micelles and biological interfaces caused a progressive reduction of activity.

In 1947 the Chemical Society of London invited Alexander to give the annual Tilden Lecture; this provided an opportunity to survey the results of his Cambridge period. The text of the Lecture reveals much about its author: particularly it shows (as do many others of his papers) his ingenuity in devising apparatus, and his awareness of the wide usefulness of his techniques for the investigations of so many natural and complex systems in which proteins, enzymes, bile acids, soaps, etc. are present at air-water and oil-water interfaces.

During October 1947 the Societe de Chimie Physique and the Faraday Society held a joint discussion meeting at Bordeaux on Surface Chemistry. A group photograph of 44 of the participants, induding Alexander, appears as a frontispiece to the official volume(4) of 334 pages issued to record the proceedings. Alexander and colleagues were responsible for five papers, the contents of which further illustrate comments made above. One describes robust gear for the measurement of force/area curves at interfaces; simplicity in construction was not 'achieved at the expense of either accuracy or ease of operation; in fact the latter is a distinct improvement over the usual torsion balance methods'. The other four papers deal vith the biological activities of colloidal electrolytes, they record especially the effects of soaps and soap-phenol mixtures on bacteria and cultures thereof, and show, by simple experiments, how interactions between colloidal electrolytes carrying opposite charges can markedly inhibit bacterial growth.

In 1948 a travel grant from the Royal Society enabled Alexander to spend three months visiting Universities in the United States and attending a Colloid Symposium of the American Chemical Society.

The following year saw the appearance from the Clarendon Press, Oxford, of Colloid Science, a work of 837 pages, by A.E. Alexander and P. Johnson. Its success was immediate. A reviewer,(5) using italics for emphasis, hailed it as the first book to be written on Colloid Science, and praised it as a broad, modern, and authoritative treatment of the subject of colloid physics and chemistry from the fundamental rather than from the phenomenological viewpoint.

Alexander was by now established as one of Britain's leading physical chemists. His public service commitments were increasing. In 1948 he became an external examiner for the University of St. Andrews; in 1949 he was elected to the Council of the Faraday Society. His research interests were diverse and usually relevant to practice; his relations with chemical industry were cordial. In Cambridge, through the years, Alexander accumulated valuable experience as a teacher and academic administrator. His personal popularity at home and abroad was undeniable; in all ways his career had developed appropriately for the next phase of his life.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the government of New South Wales was planning to expand its technical education system at the tertiary level. Initially the creation of an Institute of Technology had been proposed and, in 1947, a Developmental Council was set up to promote and manage such a project. In August 1948 this Council decided inter alia to advertise Chairs in Applied Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. In due course A.E. Alexander and J.P. Baxter were appointed respectively to these two positions. They arrived during 1949, were officially welcomed at a Lord-Mayoral Town Hall reception, and started work in the Sydney Technical College, Ultimo, where a sensible and adequate chemical building existed thanks to the pre-war foresight and drive of Dr R.K. Murphy, Head of the Chemistry Department throughout the inter-war years, and later the Principal of the College.

The new institution was incorporated by an Act of the State Parliament in April, 1949, as the New South Wales University of Technology. Its objects, in the words of the Act, were: (a) the provision of facilities for higher specialised instruction and advanced training in the various branches of technology and science in their application to industry and commerce; and (b) the aiding by research and other suitable means of the advancement, developments and practical application of science to industry and commerce.

With such aims, and where chemistry was concerned, Alexander was fully in sympathy. He started work to form a School of Applied Chemistry with enthusiasm. The organising de novo of a University Teaching department proved to be a heavy task made difficult by a no. of factors - the rapidity of numerical increase of colleagues and students being one. A note by Alexander himself, written about 1955,says:

...since taking up my present position the staff of the Chemistry School has grown to such an extent that the administrative load has become extremely time-consuming, despite decentralisation of the School into a no. of virtually autonomous units.The present staff establishment in Sydney totals 157, which includes three Professors and 34 Lecturers. As Head of the School I am also responsible for chemistry instruction in the Newcastle, Wollongong, and Broken Hill Colleges, as well as for a Dept. of Biological Sciences with a staff of 33...The large staff is justified by the fact that the Chemistry School gives instruction to both full-time and part-time students in almost every faculty, the total number of students being approximately 2,000.

Additional responsibilities came with Alexander's Deanship of the Faculty of Science, and Chairmanship of the Research and graduate studies committee of the Professorial Board. Consistently with his convictions regarding professional service, he gave time freely to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, being a committee member of the N.S.W. Branch from 1952 to 1956 and its President during 1955.

Research activity in the School was high from the beginning. Projects from Cambridge were transferred to Sydney, and new ones introduced. Many of the latter had industrial or technical implications and arose from the friendly liaison Alexander quickly established with such bodies as the C.S.I.R.0., the Bread Research Institute, the N.S.W. Department of Agriculture, the Australian Meat Board, and with sundry paint technologists, veterinarians, etc.

Throughout Alexander's seven years with the New South Wales University of Technology he produced, as author or part-author, some 40 papers. Monolayer studies were resumed or extended, often with shifts of emphasis towards systems of practical importance. Thus the use of cetyl alcohol films to conserve water by retarding evaporation from dams in the drier parts of Australia caught Alexander's imagination, and is the reason why work was begun on the diffusion of small gas molecules (e.g. H2S to simulate H2O) through insoluble monolayers. Likewise, experiments on the permeabilities of films to organic compounds adsorbed thereon underlay several years' attention to the cattle tick problem in N.S.W.

The same period saw the start of a long series of investigations into the unique ability of wool fibres to undergo supercontraction-a spontaneous decrease in fibre length, sometimes reversible and sometimes irreversible according to the treatments given. Wool supercontracts irreversibly in hot concentrated aqueous solutions of lithium halides, probably through breakage of hydrogen bonds. Factors affecting such behaviour were identified.

Structure determinations by surface layer techniques continued. An unsaturated haemolytic fatty acid, isolated from horse brain, was thus identified, preliminary studies were made on the puparial and pupal cuticle waxes from sheep blowfly and-other pests, the phenomenology of spreading of fatty alcohols was investigated, and the surface properties of wheat glutens reported.

During 1956 Alexander transferred to the University of Sydney. His motives were not made public until 1961.(6) Concerning the University of Technology he says '...I came to it full of hope. I left completely disillusioned'. In November 1949 there was the prospect of an autonomous University and of a move from Ultimo to new buildings at Kensington by 1951. Both autonomy and new buildings were slow to come. The University had started as part of the Department of Technical Education, strongly influenced by the Public Service Board. Various administrative procedures led to misunderstandings and friction. Hartwell, writing in the Nation of January 14, 1961, says 'Of the seven original professors, two soon resigned, three (Professors A.E. Alexander, D.W. Phillips and myself) began a long and unrewarding battle to improve conditions, and one (Professor J.P. Baxter, now the vice-chancellor) watched and waited. Early agitation culminated in 'a prayer' by Alexander, Phillips and myself to the Council, which roundly condemned the administration, and demanded autonomy and a vice-chancellor'. This prayer, which only three professors would sign, was described by Mr. W. Wurth, the Chancellor, as 'the most shocking document' he had ever received.

Autonomy was eventually achieved. Alexander continues

we asked to have a distinguished academic, with previous experience of University work, appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor. This was doubly necessary in view of the first stormy years and the fact that the autonomous University was in its formative stages. Instead the Chancellor appointed Dr J.P. Baxter, Professor of Chemical Engineering, whose previous experience had been solely in industry...

Difficulties reappeared; they lay

particularly in the powers of the Professorial Board and the professorial heads of departments. We sought no unusual powers or privileges, merely those accorded to our opposite numbers in the University of Sydney. Thus, for example, we sought the same selection procedure as operates there; but instead we obtained the travesty of one...

For Alexander, matters came to a head over alleged political tests and security checks applied to prospective employees of the University. A particular case(7) was before the Professorial Board on 12 June 1956. Alexander says:

The atmosphere was tense as Hartwell described the events up to that time and sought our support on the important matter of principle involved. Although the meeting was overwhelmingly in support of Hartwell, when it came to the point only a small handful - three or four at the most - were prepared to back their principles to the extent of a show-down with the Vice-Chancellor. If a few more had shown a fraction of Hartwell's guts...the outcome would have been different. I shall not forget my feelings as we dispersed.

Alexander departed in November, 1956, with '...my losses, apart from seven years of wasted effort...no more than a somewhat smaller salary and seven years superannuation (perhaps £2,000)'. He records the reason why he did not resign much earlier than he did. 'This was the calibre and spirit of the staff within the Chemistry School. The teaching staff, most of whom had had experience in overseas universities, were solidly behind my efforts to achieve a real University'.

Work was quickly restarted in the University of Sydney, and over the next thirteen years some fifty or more papers were to appear from Alexander and his colleagues. Broadly, the pure and applied projects undertaken may be catalogued under four headings: (a) monolayer studies, (b) micellar solutions, (c) the roles of surfactants in heterogeneous polymerisations, and (d) the effects of polyelectrolytes on the crystallisations of sparingly soluble salts. In addition, general questions concerning science education gradually began to engage Alexander's attention with mounting fervour throughout his last decade.

Under (a) were surface balance studies of polymer monolayers, of alcohols containing sterically hindered hydroxyl groups, and of hydrogen bonding in films of nylon-type polyamides. The interactions between proteins and surfactants at air-water interfaces were also investigated by monolayer techniques.

Many important practical problems were examined under (b), perhaps the most significant being concerned with solubilised pesticides and the cattle-tick Boophilus microplus For fifty years this pest had been controlled by dipping the infested cattle in arsenical solutions; to these, however, the tick was seemingly becoming more resistant. The first DDT suspensions, under cattle-dipping conditions, were unstable, and Alexander's assistance was sought by the Department of Agriculture, NSW, to improve the efficiency of such formulations. The DDT was apparently not as persistent on the hides of living cattle as it was on inanimate surfaces, but experiment revealed that colloidal DDT dispersions flocculated more rapidly than usual in the presence of cattle hair. The cause was traced to the large hydrophobic surface of the hair. Surface coagulations at air-water interfaces had been noted before but this was the first time it had been recognised at a solid/liquid interface. The effects of various salts and clays on the suspensions were measured, and the role of surface active agents in relation to crystal growth of DDT in aqueous media elucidated. The permeabilities of insect cuticles could be increased by the presence of micellar soap - a fact connected with earlier work at Cambridge on surface activity and permeability as factors in drug action.

The effects of pressure on the critical micelle concentration of cationic surfactants were examined, and unexpected maxima in the c.m.c. versus pressure curves at 750 atmospheres attributed-to the increase in the dielectric constant of water in this region.

The adsorption isotherms for several anionic surfactants on wool were measured at different temperatures, both above and below the c.m.c..

The purpose of the work under (c), begun in 1960, was to determine how surface active agents influence the mechanism of polymerisation in heterogeneous systems. Alexander believed that an examination of relatively simple systems would lead naturally to an understanding of the more complex, but industrially important, process of emulsion polymerisation.

At the outset the theory of emulsion polymerisation most widely accepted was that of Smith and Ewart(8) by which soap micelles were supposed to be the primary locus of polymerisation during the nucleation period; however past experience gave grounds for thinking such ideas inadequate.

The aqueous polymerisation of vinyl acetate was first examined. Different types of surfactants (anionic, non-ionic; or cationic) were found to influence the reaction rate, apparently through effects on the colloid stability of the formed latex. Methyl acrylate, an isomer of vinyl acetate, was subsequently shown to behave comparably. Micelles in these systems appeared to play minor roles as monomer reservoirs. Further support for this conclusion came from the true solution polymerization of acrylamide, which was relatively unaffected by surfactants.

Later it was shown that surfactants exhibited an effect additional to that due simply to a change in colloid stability. The kinetics observed for seeded systems implied that polymerisation begins in the aqueous phase with the formation of oligomeric free radicals which then enter the seed radicals which, in turn, become the primary loci of polymerisation. Entry of charged oligomeric free radicals may be retarded by coulombic repulsion generated by adsorbed ionic surfactants of the same sign; this would result in a marked decrease in reaction rate. Retardation may also be caused by nonionic surfactants providing a viscous layer through which the oligomers must diffuse. The role of surfactants in heterogeneous polymerisation, evidently more complicated than was envisaged by Smith and Ewart, is still a matter for debate.

The investigations under (d) originated with earlier observations that the physical shapes of DDT crystals could affect the biological activity of this compound when dispersed as a cattle dip. In his 1954 Liversidge Lecture Alexander had briefly referred to the long-known fact that during the process of crystallization a crystal habit could be modified by preferential adsorption of substances such as dyes on particular crystal faces. Three papers record studies of the ways in which low concentrations (e.g. a few p.p.m.) of several polyelectrolytes, both natural or synthetic, were found to retard significantly the rates of crystallization of calcium sulphate or oxalate. Such behaviour could be understood if the adsorbed species prevented further growth by blocking the movement of spiral dislocations.

The work has medical implications since calcium oxalate appears in the majority of kidney or bladder "stones". For a normal urine the ion product of the calcium and oxalate ions present is ca, 170 times greater than for a saturated solution of calcium oxalate, and only when some protective mechanism breaks down are "stones" formed. Alexander et al, identified this mechanism as the adsorption of urinary polymers on crystal embryos and on the faces of growing crystals, thus reducing the nucleation and growth rates. A parallel study on the effects of polymeric additives on the crystallization of calcium sulphate dihydrate from aqueous solution forms the subject of Alexander's last research publication, which appeared in print some four months after his death.

Thoughts on the organization of Universities, and of chemistry courses at various levels, increasingly occupied Alexander's mind during his final years. Personal experiences, first in Cambridge, then in the University of N.S.W., and finally in the University of Sydney, convinced him that the administrative arrangements and machineries of government in the larger Australian Universities left much to be desired. His main ideas for their reform were summarised in the A.D. Ross Lecture, delivered in the University of Westem Australia in March 1965. The title chosen: 'University Organisation and Government: A Century Out-of-date?' gave the keynote of the central themes. Arguments followed for more democratic systems of control by elected representatives of the academic staff on all bodies involved in basic issues such as planning and policy making, for more decentralized administrations, and for a scrapping of the traditional Faculty and Departmental divisions. These and other changes were advocated in fresh and vigorous language. Alexander observed '...Australian universities investigate everything except themselves'. He deplored the timid attitudes of many academic persons, and the apathy of the majority of them to all issues other than salaries. His analysis of the remarkable growth and achievements of the CSIRO in the field of scientific research is striking:

This body...has such an international standing that it can recruit overseas purely on its reputation. Many scientists and others in universities were wont to...bemoan the relative affluence of the CSIRO. But the reasons for the relative affluence and success of that body seem not to be appreciated in universities - or if appreciated are certainly not acted upon. Let me state them briefly: refusal to undertake problems without adequate facilities, insistence on quality of research staff, decentralized administrative arrangements, interest in the complex problems of communications within its ranks and with the public, and encouragement of frank criticism through bodies such as Advisory Councils.

Alexander concludes:

Since internal forces seem unlikely at present to bring about any major reform in our university system, we must look to external forces...Only two sources seem possible to me - the Australian Universities Commission and the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations. These two bodies working in concert, if backed by an informed public opinion and particularly by the graduate associations of universities, could work wonders, so vulnerable is the present system. The Universities Commission could, by virtue of its financial powers, ensure that the new universities being set up do not merely reproduce an existing archaic pattern...Furthermore, the most likely hope of reforming existing universities will come from the influence of successful new ones, as is already beginning to happen in Britain.

Alexander's Lecture concluded with a challenge to the University of Western Australia:

to make a gesture unprecedented in Australian university history - to say to the academic staff, 'What sort of organization do you want, and how could we attain it?' You would be staggered by the impact upon other universities, upon staff morale, and upon recruitment...and...it is the calibre of the academic staff which determines not only the standing but the effectiveness of any university...For its vitality the university depends on persons, not institutions, which are no more than a physical prerequisite. The university is judged by its ability to attract the best people and provide them with the most favourable conditions for research, communication, and teaching.

The last of Alexander's public campaigns concerned science teaching in schools. The "Wyndham Scheme", introduced in N.S.W. in 1962, had added a year to secondary education, and had made "junior" science a compulsory subject for all pupils in their first four years. Alexander explains his personal involvement in a 66-page booklet(9), published in May 1969:

...I would have remained largely ignorant of what was going on in the science courses of the Wyndham Scheme until 1968 (when the first intake of 'Wyndham guinea-pigs' entered the universities), but for family reasons. These provided the stimulus, whilst on sabbatical leave in Britain m 1966, for studying the syllabus, text-books and Teachers' Manual put out for the new Higher School Certificate course, which had commenced that year. The syllabus was so impossible and the books so poor that I felt impelled to write to the Press in Sydney(10) making not only some trenchant criticisms but also some concrete suggestions for improvement.

Thus started a cut-and-thrust controversy which was to last three years, in which some 40 letters would be written to newspapers, but from which, after much smoke and fire, signs of improvement are appearing. To Alexander, more than to any other person, must go the credit for bringing these matters to the attention of the public and the Education Department alike. His active interest in the Secondary Schools Science Association was, for exarnple, a catalyst which, in late 1969, led this body to make a valuable survey of teacher opinion without which it would have been far more difficult to devise the better courses for trial in schools in 1971.

An anonymous writer has commented(11) on Alexander's

rare readiness to initiate a public debate on matters of public concern, and to pursue the matters which provoked him with a fearlessness which, for a while, might lose friends but which in the end could only deepen respect and friendship. The latest of these concerned secondary school science education, and no one could complain of pulled punches there. One could disagree with him, and at the pressure he was ready to bring through media as public as the press, but it was impossible to denigrate the principles which moved him - and one mostly agreed with him anyhow.

The obituarist of King's College, Cambridge speaks(12) of Alexander thus:

He took part in many campaigns, firmly, loudly, and fearlessly, yet always with his characteristic good temper...Alex was a cheery, outdoor character with a healthy outlook on life. He thought nothing, in his student days, of cycling from Ringwood to Cambridge, and one of the things he liked about Australia was the long season of glorious bathing from the Sydney beaches. Though not easy toget to know intimately, he was always friendly and smiling. He could be justly indignant, but he never lost his temper. Nor did he ever say or allow an unpleasant word about other people, No wonder he was a valued and popular colleague, firm, patient and gentle in his administration, and had innumerable friends. It was only when he found undesirable activities going on behind the scenes that his equanimity was disturbed; and then he spoke out strongly.

Dr. R.J. Hunter assesses(13) Alexander as:

a remarkable man...a truly gifted individual in whom a fine scientific mind had been united with a generous and outgoing personality. An infectious laugh assured him of the affection of his colleagues whilst his high principles and dedication to his ideals earned him the respect of a wide variety of people both inside and outside his chosen profession...all those who associated with him in any of his many activities will remain influenced by his genuine humanity...

Alexander's publication list shows the large no. of students and co-workers who were, through the years, attracted to his laboratories at Cambridge and in the two Sydney Universities. As a research supervisor Alexander had a flair for finding problems in the realities of practice. He 'demanded much of his students, for the problems he set them were never trivial, and he expected them to exercise a considerable degree of independence in tackling them. Nevertheless he was always patient and encouraging when things were not going well and he remained both friend and advisor to his former students long after the formal association was terminated'.

The anonymous Royal Australian Chemistry Institute writer (loc. cit.) summarises the many tributes contained in letters received from Alexander's numerous friends in all parts of the world when he says: 'Those who were privileged to be in his department learnt much from his sympathy, generosity, gregariousness, unaffectedness, patience, strength and transparent honesty. Others, who knew of him only at secondhand, found it hard to believe that his forthrightness did not conceal deviousness, which it did not'.

Despite his many other preoccupations, Alexander always took his full share of administrative responsibilities and worked unselfishly to sustain and strengthen a healthy liaison with industry and applied science generally. For years he was a co-opted member of the Advisory Council of CSIRO, of the Research Advisory Committee of the Bread Research Institute of Australia, and a consultant to two of the largest firms of chemical manufacturers. Within the University of Sydney 'he held many positions of the kind in which the service far exceeds the thanks', and at the time of his last illness he was Dean of the Faculty of Science. His loyalty to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute has already been noted. He was a trustee of ANZAAS.

Alexander's last years were clouded by tragedy. As a research student he had been unofficially engaged to Catherine Robson. They were married in 1940 and had a daughter Naomi and a son Neil. They were a happy family in Australia, with a home in Sydney and a little cottage up-country at Berilee, enjoying fishing and other open air pastimes. Unfortunately Catherine, after a fairly long illness died from cancer on 14 November, 1963. Two years later, on 10 Deeember, 1965 Alexander married Gisela Baker (nee Zutavern, of Heidelberg), the widow of a Sydney industrial chemist, who brought him two stepdaughters. In 1966 Alexander was in Bristol as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor when he learned that Naomi (then the wife of an Australian post-doctoral fellow studying overseas) had been killed in a car crash in the USA. The blow was hard to endure. Alexander's public reaction was to found the 'Naomi Alexander Memorial Fund', in the Women's College of the University of Sydney, with(14)an initial donation of $1000 to start a trust fund, the income from which was 'to be used either as a prize to a deserving student or at the discretion of the Principal'.

As the NSW representative of the Chemical Society of London, Alexander was involved in organising the historic first meeting in Sydney of the oldest English Chemical Society under the Chairmanship of its Australian President (the late Sir Ronald Nyholm, FRS) and in the presence of many distinguished visitors assembled for the 1969 IUPAC Congress. Photographs(15) taken on this occasion are the last pictures we have of Alexander.

He became ill a few weeks later. Towards the end of the year a brain tumour was diagnosed, located, and operated upon, but without lasting success. By April, 1970, his strength was rapidly diminishing. Yet optimism persisted...on 9 May he announced a decision to retire at 60, not 65, and to join an anti-pollution research group, this was during my last conversation with him. By 16 May he had ceased to recognise those around him. He died peacefully during the evening of 23 May, 1970.

The Pymble Presbyterian Church was packed by friends, colleagues, and students on 26 May for a funeral service during which a moving panegyric was spoken by Professor I.G. Ross.


(1) D.A. Haydon and RH. Ottewill, The Department of Co11oid Science, University of Cambridge, Chemistry and Industry, 1962, p.l267.

(2) Chemistry and Industry, loc. cit.

(3) Chemistry and Industry, 1945, pp. 250, 273.

(4) Surface Chemistry, Butterworth's Scientific Publications, London, 1949.

(5) Anon, Trans Faraday Soc., 45, 1949, p. 895.

(6) 'SevenYears in Kensington', Nation, 25 Feb., 1961, pp.9-13.

(7) R.M. Hartwell, Vestes, 3, (1960), 51.

(8) J. Chem. Phys., 1948, 16, 592.

(9) Education and Alchemy - The Story of Wyndham Science, The Secondary Schools Science Association, 1969.

(10) Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Dec. 1966.

(11) Proc. Roy. Austr. Chem. Inst. 37, (1970), p.211

(12) Ann. Rep. King's Coll. Cambridge, 1970, p.17

(13) Search, 1, (1970), p.91.

(14) See Sydney University Calendar, 1970, p.612.

(15) Reproduced in Chemistry in Britain for November, 1969.

Raymond James Wood Le Fevre, DSc, FRS, Foundation Fellow of the Academy, and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry in the University of Sydney. He was a Councillor, 1954-56.

This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 2, no. 2, Canberra, Australia, 1971.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

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