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Lyons, Lawrence Ernest (1922–2010)

When most people think of semiconductors, the devices which ushered in the computer age, they think of somewhere like Silicon Valley in California. 

But home-grown scientist Lawrence Lyons was considered one of the very greatest minds in what is hoped to be the next generation of the devices, organic semiconductors. 

His seminal work, Organic Semiconductors, co-authored with Felix Gutmann and published in 1966, was so influential that a pirated edition was even published in the USSR in 1970. 

A supplementary volume Professor Lyons co-authored, which came out in 1983, underpinned the emerging field of molecular electronics — the science of manipulating polymers, or plastics, so they act as transistors and sources of light. 

These days it is an important field which holds out hope of helping solve the global warming challenge, among other things. 

Cheap organic materials might one day form the heart of low-cost solar panels, to name just one use. 

Professor Lyons' pioneering work into making very thin, pure organic films which could capture the energy of the sun set benchmarks for the research taking place around the world today. 

Born in Sydney in 1922, he developed an interest in academia from his paternal grandfather, who was a schoolteacher. His younger brother, Lloyd, was also academically minded and later read medicine at Sydney University. 

Professor Lyons was a bright student from his earliest days at Sydney Boys High School. 

After matriculation, he studied science at Sydney University, winning the Liversidge Scholarship in 1939 and then the Caird Scholarship. 

His scientific efforts were to be put to practical use from the outset because of the outbreak of war. At the time, Australia had embarked on a project to build the nation's first military aircraft, the Wirraway. 

This required lightweight alloys, so Professor Lyons was tasked with leading a team focused on developing aluminium alloys. 

He served with the RAAF, then won the British Ramsay Fellowship for chemistry before deciding to pursue a doctorate at University College, London, one of the world's most prestigious tertiary institutions (at that time it boasted two Nobel Prize winners in chemistry). 

He duly returned from Britain with the title Dr Lyons and was appointed lecturer at Sydney University, rising to senior lecturer and then reader in chemistry. 

While working there he met his wife-to-be, Alison, an arts graduate at the university. 

In 1963 he moved north of the Tweed after being appointed to the chair of physical chemistry at the University of Queensland, a position he held until his retirement in 1987. 

His research over the years garnered him two Fulbright scholarships, in 1957 and 1979, the HG Smith Medal for Chemistry (1968) and the Burfitt Prize for Chemistry (1968). He was also made a Leverhulme senior fellow at the University of Tokyo and Debye lecturer at Cornell University in the United States, as well as working at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Princeton, among many other institutions. 

Capping a lifetime of achievement, in 1971 he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the highest scientific honour Australia offers its scientists, while in 1987 the University of Queensland appointed him an emeritus professor. 

Apart from his science, a driving force in his life was his Christian faith. 

With his wife and other evangelical academics, he founded three Anglican residential halls at Sydney University and New College at the University of NSW. 

He was also instrumental in the construction of the building used by the then Kenmore Presbyterian Church, and now by Kenmore Uniting Church. 

In retirement, he founded the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology, for which he was awarded a Centennial Medal. 

He was also a key figure in the establishment of Kenmore State High School and the first president of its P & C committee. 

Professor Lyons is survived by his wife of 54 years, Alison, and son, Andrew. His younger son, Hugh, died in 1984.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Lyons, Lawrence Ernest (1922–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lyons-lawrence-ernest-31605/text39077, accessed 27 November 2021.

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