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Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

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

Ernest Ritchie 1917-1976

By C.W. Shoppee

Ernest Ritchie was born in Woollahra, Sydney, on 11 February 1917, the second of the three sons of Thomas Wallace Ritchie and Myra Florence Charlotte Ritchie (nee Calf). Ernest Ritchie was of Scottish ancestry; his father came from Leith, near Edinburgh, emigrating to Australia as a young man, and becoming Compensation Officer of the Sydney Labour Council and so responsible for many changes, innovations, and improvements in the worker's compensation system of New South Wales.

Ernest Ritchie grew up in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney in a home conducive to study. He was educated at Woollahra Superior Public School, Randwick Intermediate High School, and Sydney Boys' High School. He entered the University of Sydney (Faculty of Science) with a Public Exhibition in 1933 and obtained the degree of BSc (lst Class Honours in General and Inorganic Chemistry) in 1937. The years 1937-38 were vintage ones for chemistry in Sydney, producing also Arthur Birch (now Professor A. J. Birch, FRS, FAA), John ('Kappa') Cornforth (now Professor Sir John Cornforth, Nobel Laureate, FRS), and the late Professor Sir Ronald Nyholm, FRS. He found time to play rugby football for the University and was awarded a blue.(1)

As a result of the strong impression made on him by the then Senior Lecturer in organic chemistry, the late Dr Francis Lions, Ernest Ritchie embarked on a career in organic chemistry, which he pursued with unceasing enthusiasm. He collaborated with Lions, first as a research student and later as a colleague, in work on heterocyclic chemistry, obtaining the degree of MSc in 1939. Subsequently, as a great admirer of the work of Sir Robert Robinson, OM, FRS, on natural products, he became interested in the isolation and chemical characterisation of the constituents of the Australian flora; this work, carried out in association first with the late Dr G. K. Hughes and subsequently with Dr W. C. Taylor over a period of some thirty years, forms his main contribution to organic chemistry, although he also worked in the fields of synthesis and reaction mechanism.

Apart from sabbatical leave at Oxford in 1954-55 and 1970-71, Ernest Ritchie remained at the University of Sydney during the whole of his academic career. He was appointed Demonstrator in organic chemistry [1937], was promoted to Assistant Lecturer [1941], Lecturer [1944], Senior Lecturer [1946], Reader [1961], and was appointed to a personal Professorship in 1967. When the writer retired at the end of 1969, Ritchie succeeded him as Professor of Organic Chemistry and Head of the Department, and in 1971 he was Head of the School of Chemistry for a period of two years. It was to him a matter of private personal pride that he had successively and successfully passed through every grade in the academic hierarchy, and had thus acquired a unique experience of the teaching of organic chemistry and of departmental administration at all levels in the University of Sydney.

The contributions to organic chemistry of Ernest Ritchie, contained in 148 papers, were recognised by numerous awards and honours. The Royal Society of New South Wales awarded him the Edgworth David Medal [1948], and the University of Sydney conferred the degree of DSc on him [1954]. The Nuffield Foundation awarded him a Dominion Traselling Fellowship [1954], which he held at the University of Oxford under Robinson. The Australian Academy of Science elected him into the Fellowship [1963]. He received the H. G. Smith Medal of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute [1963], and finally a Royal Society and Nuffield Foundation Bursary [1970], which he held at the University of Oxford again, working in the Dyson Perrins Laboratory. Ernest Ritchie passed away, suddenly in his sleep, on the night of 8 April 1976 at the early age of 59 years.

The foregoing gives a brief and formal outline of Ernest Ritchie's career; it remains to describe his scientific work, and to say something about his personality.

[Here follows in the original 20 pages of detailed description of Ritchie's scientific work, including chemical diagrams. Headings include: Flindesera species (Parts I-XXII), Australian Rutaceae (Parts I-VI), Zanthoxylum spp. (Pats I-VI), Galbulimima (Himantandra) spp. (Parts I-X), The Myrtaceae (Parts I-V), Alphitonia spp. (Parts I-III), The Proteaceae (Parts I-VII), Eupomatia laurina (Parts I-IV), Miscellaneous Papers on Natural Products, Synthesis and Reaction Mechanisms.]

A Synopsis

It will be clear from the foregoing conspectus that Ernest Ritchie was a hard, enthusiastic, and meticulous worker, with green-fingers at the bench; he had a wide knowledge of organic chemistry and was well acquainted with the application of modern physical techniques. In the 1930s the only procedures available for isolation of substances were extraction, distillation, sublimation, and fractional crystallization, and for identification melting and boiling points, optical rotation, density, refractive index, microanalysis, and (marginally) ultraviolet spectroscopy, after 1945 there appeared many new techniques: countercurrent distribution, high vacuum distillation and sublimation, column chromatography, paper chromatography, thin layer chromatography, gas-liquid chromatography, optical rotatory dispersion, circular dichroism, infrared spectroscopy, proton and carbon-13 nuclear magnetic reasonance spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry, which had to be mastered with toil and sweat, for application to current research problems. Ernest Ritchie was not only an expert organic chemist, who kept up with a voluminous and expanding literature, but also a competent botanist, often participating in field expeditions (organised by the Plant Industry and Organic Chemistry Divisions of CSIRO) and collecting plant species for chemical examination.

Ernest Ritchie was devoted to research, but he was also deeply interested in teaching chemistry; he was an excellent and methodical lecturer (often speaking without notes) as many former students of chemistry at the University of Sydney would testify. Upon the foundations he so laid, some 60 students gained higher degrees under his guidance; four now hold Chairs, six are Readers or Associate Professors, and many others have risen to senior academic or industrial posts. He also contributed to the foundation of the Australian Journal of Chemistry, supporting it from its inception by publication and by service on the Editorial Committee; in 1968 he served as Chairman of the Heterocyclic Chemistry Division of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and was instrumental in the eventual formation of the Institute's Division of Organic Chemistry. He was deeply conscious of the traditions of the University of Sydney, and especially of the Department of Organic Chemistry, working ceaselessly and unselfishly to maintain the pre-eminence in Australia that that Department has enjoyed over the past 60 years since Robinson first occupied the Chair (1912-15).

Ernest Ritchie in public and in committee was terse and to the point; he was fundamentally shy, and may have developed his style subconsciously as a protective device. He took decisions on the basis of apparent common sense, and so sometimes oversimplified an issue; he stubbornly defended his decisions unless subsequent evidence convinced him that reconsideration was required. In such circumstances he was completely honest, and he enjoyed the confidence, support, and affection of his colleagues. He disliked administration, which he regarded as a regrettable but necessary distraction from teaching and research; probably his greatest administrative achievement was the reorganization of the School of Chemistry following the disappearance in a single year (1970) by decease or retirement of the other three Professors of Chemistry (the late Professor A. E. Alexander, FAA, the writer, and Professor R. J. W. Le Fevre, FAA, FRS).

Ern Ritchie in private was a congenial companion with a dry sense of humour and simple tastes; he liked his beer, was a good judge of wine, and rolled his own cigarettes. Apart from the botanical collecting expeditions, which he enjoyed, he had an unusual reluctance to travel overseas; in 35 years he took study leave only twice, travelling by sea to Oxford [1954-55], by air to a brief symposium on alkaloids in Noumea [1967], and by air to Oxford [1970-71], whence he returned by way of the USA. He held a driving licence, but had a curious aversion to driving a car; he thus travelled regularly from Roseville to the city and back again by train, saying that this gave him a useful opportunity to plan his day's activities or think about a problem. At home he relaxed by reading widely, by gardening, and by listening to his extensive and diverse collection of musical recordings. He married on 7 February 1945 Maisie Loudon-Smith, the second daughter of David and Elisabeth Loudon-Smith who came originally from Newmilns, Ayrshire, Scotland, and he is survived by his wife, two sons Robert and Ian, and a daughter Susan [now Mrs James Baillie]. Ern was gifted with unfailing cheerfulness, friendliness, and enthusiasm; he excelled in modesty and in the art of understatement, he was a scholar, a good and loyal friend, and a fine man who loved his work.

The author wishes to thank Dr W. C. Taylor for an annotated list of papers and a complete set of reprints, and Dr Taylor and Sir Robert Price, FAA, for reading the MS.


(1) The University of Sydney has a special relationship with the University of Oxford specified in its Royal Charter of 1851; its colours are therefore dark blue with a distinguishing narrow yellow stripe.

Emeritus Professor Charles William Shoppee, DSc, FRS, has held chairs of chemistry in the University of Wales (Swansea), 1948-56, the University of Sydney 1956-69, and at Texas Tech University 1970-75; Hon. Professorial Fellow of Macquarie University 1976. He was elected to the Academy in 1958, and served on the Council 1959-62, and was Vice-President 1961-62.

This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 3, no. 3/4, Canberra, Australia, 1977.

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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