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David Parker Craig (1919–2015)

by Richard Welberry

David Craig, by Peter Stewart, 2008

David Craig, by Peter Stewart, 2008

ANU Archives, 1885/12905

David P. Craig was one of Australia’s most accomplished academics in the field of theoretical chemistry and published two books and many research papers in quantum chemistry and the chemistry of liquid and molecular crystals. His most important contributions were in the electronic theory of aromatic molecules, in molecular quantum electrodynamics; in the theory of the spectra of molecular crystals; and in the theory of vibronic interactions.

He was the recipient of many honours and awards, including Fellow of the Royal Society, 1968; Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, 1969; Officer of the Order of Australia, 1985; Centenary Medal, 2001; President of the Australian Academy of Science 1990–94; H.G. Smith Memorial Medal of the RACI, 1972; The Liversidge Research Lecturer, Royal Society of NSW, 1982; Russell Grimwade Lecturer, RACI, 1985; Leighton Memorial Medal, RACI, 1991.

David Parker Craig was born on 23 December 1919 at home in Roseville, Sydney. His parents, Mary and Andrew Craig, had grown up in Manchester, England. His father moved to Australia in 1911 on medical advice and his mother emigrated four years later to marry him. David’s second name, Parker, was his mother’s maiden name. David was the younger of Mary and Andrew’s two children, but his older sister died soon after birth. As a child he was very close to his cousins Drew and Peggy Harker, who were like a brother and sister to him. David attended Knox Grammar Primary and then Shore, where he excelled in science and languages. He was also an accomplished marksman in Shore’s Army Cadet Corps.

David enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1937 to undertake a Bachelor of Science. He won an honours degree in chemistry in 1940 and went on to complete a master’s degree in 1941. It was in these years that he was introduced to the application of quantum mechanics to chemical bonding that led to his subsequent scientific career.

During this same period in Sydney he joined the Sydney University Regiment and was commissioned as a Lieutenant during his undergraduate years. He was also active in the Sydney University Film Society and its Bushwalking Club. Some years later, he served a term as President of the Sydney University Union.

Although his scientific education placed him in a reserved occupation, David was determined to serve in the Army during World War II. Because of his military training, and through the intervention of senior officers in the Sydney University Regiment, he joined the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) as Aide-de-Camp to General Iven Mackay in 1942. Promoted to Captain, he served with Mackay in Australia and then New Guinea before leading his own unit in combat as part of the 61st Battalion. David respected Mackay deeply, and spoke often of their times together, but he said almost nothing about his experiences in combat. Everyone who knew him sensed that these wartime experiences gave him the confidence to lead and the unflappable temperament that he showed throughout the rest of his life.

After leaving the Army, David returned to the University of Sydney as a Lecturer in Chemistry. It was during this time that he met Veronica (Ronia) Bryden-Brown. Ronia had been born in Sydney in 1925 and studied arts and then social work at the University of Sydney.

In 1946 David joined an exodus of young Australian scholars to undertake PhD studies in England. He chose University College London (UCL), then a world leader in chemistry, having won a Turner and Newell Fellowship. For his PhD he worked on the theory of excited states of benzene. On completion of his PhD in 1949 he was immediately appointed Lecturer at University College. There he continued his pioneering work on the inclusion of configuration interaction in molecular orbital theory until 1952.

Ronia followed David to London in 1948 and in August they married in Reading. Ronia and David both came from close families, and they were determined to form one of their own. David’s work required frequent travel overseas, and periodic moves between England and Australia, as his academic career blossomed into international prominence. This was only possible through Ronia’s unstinting support and her ability to manage the household, which eventually included four children: Andrew, born in 1949, Hugh in 1952, Mary Louise in 1955 and Douglas in 1961.

In 1952 the family returned to Australia upon David’s appointment as Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Sydney. Thirty-one at the time of his appointment, he became one of the youngest professors in the university’s history. They stayed until 1956, when they moved back to England and UCL, where David was appointed as Professor of Theoretical Chemistry. This time they stayed 11 years. During this time David’s principal research interest was investigating the spectroscopic properties of molecular crystals and he also supervised experimental spectroscopy work.

In 1967 David, Ronia and their children returned to Australia and settled in Canberra on David’s appointment as Foundation Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the Research School of Chemistry (RSC), ANU. This was the result of long and sometimes clandestine negotiations, outlined in Stephen Foster and Margaret Varghese’s The Making of the Australian National University: 1946–1996 (2009), surrounding the establishment of the RSC. With his fellow Australian Arthur Birch, and surrounded by a close-knit group of scholars, David stayed at the RSC for the rest of his career. He and Birch were very different characters but were united by their intense pride in the institution that they did so much to create.

Outside chemistry David had many interests. Always technically minded, he loved tinkering with cars and tending the family’s home in O’Connor and holiday cottage on the South Coast. Most weekends, after a stint of chainsawing and burning off with his beloved dogs, he played tennis with a group of Canberra scientists and doctors, led by his friends Max Day and Frank Fenner. He enjoyed music (played on his treasured QUAD loudspeakers), photography, movies, reading detective stories (sometimes in French) and Shakespeare, and more recently discovering the wonders of the internet. Always modest, David spoke little of his own achievements. He was proud of his wife and family, and he valued his friendships highly.

He suffered the misfortune of outliving his oldest friends—his fellow chemists Bill Bevan, Allan Maccoll, Ron Nyholm, Ian Ross and Thiru Thirunamachandran, his cousin Peggy’s husband and Melbourne engineer Chris Bennett, and the scientific equipment distributor Ben Selby, who long before had promoted him to Lance Corporal in the Sydney University Regiment. David immensely enjoyed his long retirement as an Emeritus Fellow in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at ANU, and spending time with Ronia and their large extended family. He is survived by Ronia, his children, Andrew, Hugh, Mary Lou and Douglas, and their children.

View the list of obituaries written by David Parker Craig

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Citation details

Richard Welberry, 'Craig, David Parker (1919–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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