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Eric George Davis (1923–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

For the millions of people who have opened cans to find perfectly preserved beetroot waiting for them, enjoyed perfectly preserved food in a host of other containers, or opened the wine cask to have pure wine pouring from the plastic bladder within, there would scarcely be a thought about the science that went into it. But science there was, and these simple, everyday commodities are testimony for the most part to a remarkable scientist, Eric Davis, who worked for more than 30 years with the CSIRO on the science of food preservation.

Eric George Davis was born in Kempsey on October 22, 1923, the son of a dairy farmer, George Davis, and his wife Nell (nee Ennis).

During World War II he enlisted in the RAAF and served in Bowen, Queensland, where he fulfilled a vital role of providing maintenance to the Catalina flying boats in 1942 at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea. He also met a nurse, Jean Spurrier, on a blind date. They later married.

Demobilised after three years, Davis enrolled at the University of Sydney under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme to study science. In 1949 he graduated with honours in organic chemistry.

In 1950 he joined the CSIRO division of food preservation. One of his first research jobs was investigating the protective coating of cans, an important question given that some foods, such as beetroot, had a corrosive effect on the metal. He examined lacquers that could protect cans and solved the problem.

The Davises had six children. The oldest, Ronald, said Eric was a devoted father, giving them ''lots of love and holidays'', and ensuring that he kept the illusion of Santa's arrival going as long as possible. The family lived initially at Chullora, then moved to Baulkham Hills. Davis's professional life was prospering.

In 1958, when the division was focusing on plastic packaging for the food industry, Davis was sent for a year to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On his return he set up a laboratory and began a research program on plastic packaging of foods. He explored the effects on plastic of humidity and temperatures below zero degrees and gave valuable advice to the industry on conditions under which plastic packaging might fail.

Though he was himself a non-drinker, he moved into the technicalities of wine-packaging, specifically the problems of oxidation, which had limited the market for the wine cask. With the help of a dedicated technical assistant, Phyl Moy, who stayed with him through his career, Davis meticulously studied the problem, measuring the permeation of oxygen through plastic and the valve, concluding the oxidation was mostly from oxygen migrating through the dispensing taps. The improvement of these casks, which were an Australian invention, paved the way for their international acceptance.

Davis studied the problems of the permeation of sulphur dioxide through plastic, which led to further improvements in the preservation of foods.

He worked with industry and slowly but significantly raised the level of packaging science. Norman Law, the then director of the Meat Industry Research Institute in New Zealand, said on one occasion: ''Eric Davis is the first man I have encountered who talks sense about plastic packaging of foods.''

Davis was active in the formation of the Australian Institute of Packaging in 1973, was elected a fellow and served as the president. He suffered personal sadness when Jean died in 1980.

In 1984 the institute conferred on him the Distinguished Service Award. He retired in 1989 and married Mary Corney. The couple moved to Hawks Nest, where he enjoyed golf and fishing.

Eric Davis is survived by Mary and his children, Ronald, Brian, Neil, Colin, Ruth and Pamela, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Davis, Eric George (1923–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

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