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Birch, Arthur John (1915–1995)

by Rod Rickards and David Craig

Arthur Birch was born in Sydney in 1915. He was an only child, and became the first University graduate in his family. He described how he "sauntered carelessly" through primary school then passed through the highly selective Sydney Technical High School. He graduated from the University of Sydney with First Class Honours and the University Medal in Organic Chemistry in 1936. He was a product of the pre-War golden years in the University of Sydney Department of Chemistry, in which Arthur Birch, Kappa Cornforth (later Sir John, winner of the Nobel Prize), Rita Harradence (later Lady Cornforth) and Ronald Nyholm (later Sir Ronald) were the brightest stars.

Thus began an illustrious career. A scholarship of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 took him in 1938 to work with Robert (later Sir Robert) Robinson in Oxford where the DPhil was conferred in 1941. He moved to Cambridge in 1949 as Smithson Fellow of the Royal Society, a position he held until his first tenured appointment as Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Sydney in 1952. In 1955 he took the Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of Manchester, one of the senior appointments in England. Only the challenge presented by the establishment of the Research School of Chemistry at the ANU ultimately drew him back to Australia in 1967. It was an imaginative concept of the ANU, supported by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, and by industrial and academic leaders. It was said to have been laid down by Menzies that the project would be funded only if at least two of the three approached to be professors — Arthur Birch, David Craig and Ronald Nyholm — accepted appointment. Birch and Craig did so. The School started in 1967, with Birch as the first Dean. He retired as Foundation Professor of Organic Chemistry in 1980. The main building of the Research School was named the Birch Building in 1995. His scientific autobiography, To See the Obvious, was published just before his 80th birthday in August.

He was a rounded man, a scholar as well as scientist, with warmth, tolerance and a fighting spirit that informed his whole life, and sustained him through the last months of painful illness. He enjoyed music, especially Mozart. He was good company, an engaging raconteur with an acerbic touch, able at his best to "set the table on a roar". He was not one for cant or empty form, and something of a sceptic. He said that there was to be neither service nor eulogy at the funeral ceremony; the occasion was to be more in the spirit of an Irish wake. His wishes, a little softened, were met at his cremation and at a gathering later at the Academy of Science in Canberra on 11 December 1995.

His contributions to organic chemistry and biochemistry are documented in over 400 publications. He added new dimensions to the art of organic and organometallic synthesis, and to the understanding of the structures and origins of compounds which are formed by living organisms. The chemical process known as the Birch reduction is one of the most used procedures in synthetic organic chemistry today. In 1950, it enabled him to prepare in the laboratory analogues of the natural steroid hormones, and it was later extended by others to the manufacture of oral contraceptives. His theory of the biochemical processes by which naturally occurring phenolic compounds are formed now correlates the structures of several thousand natural products, including many of the important antibiotics used in human chemotherapy today.

His interests extended beyond scientific research to science policy and administration, and his advice was sought in Australia and overseas. He was Chair of the 1977 Independent Inquiry into the CSIRO. With fellow member Sir Russell Madigan he proposed radical change in the long-standing earlier structures, including grouping the operating units, the Divisions, into Institutes. Many of the recommendations were adopted by government, and subsequent changes have built on them. He was founding Chair of the Australian Marine Sciences and Technologies Advisory Committee, OECD Examiner on Science and Technology Policy in Denmark, and Consultant for an extended period to the UNESCO-UNDP project "Strengthening Research and Teaching in Universities" in the People's Republic of China. He was President of the Australian Academy of Science and of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI). He was recently given the rare distinction of Honorary Fellowship of RACI.

The achievements and contributions of Arthur Birch have been widely recognised by honours from the communities of both government and scholars. He was appointed Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of the Royal Society, the Australian Academy of Science, the Royal Institute of Chemistry, and RACI, a Full Foreign Academician of the USSR Academy of Science, a Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of New South Wales. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Manchester, Sydney and Monash, and numerous medals and awards. In the Australian context alone he was presented by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute with the H. G. Smith Medal for Research and the A. E. Leighton Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Application of Science in Australia, by the Australian Academy of Science with the Matthew Flinders Award for Outstanding Contributions to Physical Science, and by the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science with its Medal for Contributions to Science in Australia and New Zealand. His most recent international award was the 1987 Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Chemistry.

His was an extraordinary talent. He became an international figure in organic chemistry, but remained, a dedicated Australian, active as a university teacher, in public affairs, and in top rank research.

He is survived by his wife Jessie and five children, Sue, Michael, Frank, Rosemary and Chris, and 10 grandchildren.

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Citation details

Rod Rickards and David Craig, 'Birch, Arthur John (1915–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 September 2017.

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