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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Athelstan Laurence (Athel) Beckwith (1930–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Free radicals have always been with us – renegade biological products that damage cells – causing chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and age-related disorders. Highly reactive, with unpaired electrons, they are produced by smoking, pollution, exposure to poisons, ingestion of fried foods and by normal metabolism.

Discovered, at least in theoretical form, in 1900, they had important implications in the understanding of crucial aspects of biology and many chemical processes, including combustion, atmospheric chemistry, polymerisation, plasma chemistry and biochemistry. But they were difficult and elusive, so much so that for a long time many scientists were sceptical that they even existed.

One man, Athelstan (Athel) Beckwith, did take them seriously. As a young scientist he was attracted to that field, along with perhaps six other scientists throughout the world. He became an international authority on the subject, and at the end there was a new discipline.

''I suppose not many people can set out at the beginning of their career wondering if anything will come of their chosen field of science – in this case for a small, neglected byway of science that was barely believed by the scientific majority,'' he said.

Athelstan Laurence Johnson Beckwith was born on February 20, 1930, son of Laurence and Doris (nee Johnson), with a well-established Australian pedigree. His great uncle was one of the ringleaders at the Eureka Stockade. Beckwith grew up in Perth, but in 1942 was evacuated to the town of Porongurup in the inland, out of fear that the Japanese would invade.

He went to the Modern School in Perth, where he became a close friend of a pupil a year ahead of him, Bob Hawke. He got over a serious illness, osteomyelitis, which nearly killed him and left him with a limp. He displayed an enormous aptitude for music but was attracted to science. In 1952 he gained First Class Honours in Science at the University of Western Australia, then married an accountant, Kaye Marshall. He joined the staff of the University of Adelaide, and shortly afterwards took up a CSIRO scholarship to study free radicals at Oxford.

In 1956, with his doctorate in hand, Beckwith went to work with the CSIRO in Melbourne, where he conducted successful research on commercial uses for wool wax. In 1958 he returned to Adelaide University. In 1960 he received the Rennie Medal, a recognition of his achievements, from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and in 1961 took a Nuffield Scholarship to work in London alongside the Nobel laureate Professor Sir Derek Barton.

In 1965 Beckwith became a professor and head of the Department of Organic Chemistry at Adelaide University. He sought to introduce more democracy, ''in particular to involve staff much more in decisions'', he said. In 1968, he undertook a year's study at the University of York, and saw the operation of Electronic Spin Resonance Spectroscopy, an important aid for research, which he then introduced to Adelaide University.

In 1969, a time of student radicalism and opposition to the Vietnam War, students at Adelaide University wanted access to meetings of the university council. That was granted, but for discussion of a proposed commercial agreement involving Professor Beckwith it was decided that part of the meeting should be closed. It was an ''agreement between Professor Beckwith and an unnamed American company''. The company, Maumee Chemical Co, wanted to use Beckwith's research, with appropriate payments from its marketing to go to the university. But students saw something sinister in it and made life hard for both Beckwith and his department.

In 1971 Beckwith served a term as South Australian president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. In the early 1970s he took up some issues outside the rarefied world of the chemical laboratory, when he saw police behaving oppressively to Aborigines in the Carrington Hotel in Adelaide. With his wife, he made representations to the Dunstan government and managed to bring about a change in the laws. Beckwith retained an interest in Aboriginal affairs from that time, just as he kept up his interest in music, including opera and ballet, and retained a love of literature.

In 1974 Beckwith became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In that year, and again in 1979, he undertook further research in Oxford. In 1981 he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University. In 1984, he began a term as president of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and in 1989 became a Fellow the Royal Society in London. He continued as professor at the ANU till 1995, when he retired.

As Emeritus Professor, Beckwith continued to vigorously research free radicals. In 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal for his services to Australian society and science and in 2004 was awarded the Order of Australia.

Athel Beckwith is survived by Kaye, children Paul, Claire and Cathy, and grandsons James, Matt, Tassie and Jeremy.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Beckwith, Athelstan Laurence (Athel) (1930–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 31 May 2024.

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