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Ogston, Alexander George (Sandy) (1911–1996)

by Peter Jeffrey

Alexander George Ogston, FRS, died in England on 29 June 1996 at the age of 85. Ogston, known to everyone as "Sandy", was the Foundation Professor of Physical Biochemistry at the John Curtin School of Medical Research and was Head of Department here from 1959 until 1970.

A tall, slim figure, bearded, with a quizzical expression and a twinkling eye, Sandy Ogston was the image of the gifted English amateur of science. His public school accent in which there was just a hint of a tendency to pronounce "R's" as "W's", a legacy of Eton and Balliol, did nothing to dispel the impression. His impeccable scientific background, which included a grandfather who discovered Staphylococcus aureus and who was physician to Queen Victoria, scholarships to Eton and Oxford and first class Honours in chemistry, was given a touch of the exotic by his birth in 1911 in Bombay. However, Ogston was a gifted scientist who, after two years' research at the London Hospital, some mysterious work during World War Two, and an extended period at Balliol College, Oxford as a Fellow and later Reader, was a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 44.

Before coming to Australia, a move which his English colleagues regarded as distinctly eccentric, Ogston had spent altogether 30 years at Balliol, at one time even stroking the college boat. When he returned to Balliol, after working at the London Hospital, Ogston had to study for and sit examinations in physiology, a subject in which he had not previously qualified. As he had been a colleague of most of his examiners this led to an interesting situation. He could not be given a classification in honours and was simply recorded as "having satisfied the examiners". A long time afterwards when he asked how he had actually done in the exam, for which he had worked hard, the reply was "My dear chap, you don't suppose we actually bothered to read your papers, do you?"

Sandy Ogston was a pioneer of the study of large molecules of biological interest, especially proteins and hyaluronic acid, the natural lubricant of joints. He made significant contributions to the early theoretical treatments of sedimentation in the analytical ultracentrifuge and he was a tireless and effective advocate of the application of quantitative physical methods to biological problems and gave this approach a strategically-timed shot in the arm in Australia following his appointment to the John Curtin School. Although physical biochemistry (a term which Ogston may have invented) suffered something of a decline in fashion through the 1980s, some of the momentum imparted by Ogston through his disciples remains and he would welcome the signs of a renaissance in the recognition of the need for a more rigorous description of some biochemical processes which hardly make sense without quantitation.

Sandy Ogston contributed more than scientific leadership to the ANU, giving wise advice on many School and University committees. He was active in student matters, especially the student Christian movement, and believed passionately in the need for good contact and communication between students and university staff. He was very fond of music and once devoted a sabbatical term to learning the piano. After his retirement he built himself a harpsichord from a kit and hugely enjoyed playing it and even more hearing it played by an expert.

After he left the ANU, Ogston enjoyed seven years as President of Trinity College, Oxford, next door to his old college. Here, his wide interests, his gifts for dealing with students, his wisdom and his modesty were fully employed and appreciated. He retired from Trinity to the beautiful old city of York where he and his wife Liza lived in a delightful house tucked in under the old Roman wall, close to the city centre. Sandy was a frequent visitor to York University where he contributed to seminars and he continued his addiction to vigorous walking and travelling. In his 80th year he did a sort of Grand Tour which included a visit to the ANU where, little changed and genial as ever, he was feted by former friends and colleagues. Sandy is survived by Elizabeth, his wife of 62 years, a son and three daughters.

Original publication

Citation details

Peter Jeffrey, 'Ogston, Alexander George (Sandy) (1911–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ogston-alexander-george-sandy-779/text780, accessed 25 November 2017.

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