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Mander, Lewis Norman (Lew) (1939–2020)

by John White

Lew Mander, by Darren Boyd, 1990

Lew Mander, by Darren Boyd, 1990

ANU Archives, ANUA ANUA 225-820

Lewis Norman Mander, born on 8 September 1939, went to Albion Heights Grammar School in Auckland, thence to the University of Auckland and Sydney University to work with Professor C.W. Shoppee on steroid chemistry. A colleague there then said that Lew finished what he was asked to do in nine months—it was too easy. Moving to Professor Wal Taylor, his interest in the total synthesis of important natural products began.

In periods at the University of Michigan, the University of Adelaide, CalTech before coming to the Research School of Chemistry (RSC) at ANU in 1975, he displayed his chemical skills. With synthesis of progressively more and more complex structures, he inspired a generation of students who were not frightened by complexity and who knew that deep knowledge of chemistry and persistent rational work overcomes the setbacks that we all experience in experimental science. It is that inspiration of confidence and rationality that Lew leaves us. Of his many triumphs, that of the gibberellin synthesis stands out with its 22 consecutive steps on minute quantities, giving a product whose action in plant growth was vividly demonstrated. He remarked wryly in print:

In an attempt to convince a University to employ him, and granting agencies to provide him with funding, the author also proposed to carry out a synthesis of this intriguing molecule.

For the Academy’s 60th anniversary in 2014, he annunciated to me the rules for a good organic synthesis: novelty; yield; brevity; convergence; minimum of functional group changes (e.g. protection, deprotection, oxidation, reduction, migration); selectivity (e.g. regioselectivity, chemo-selectivity, stereoselectivity [enantio- and diastereo-]). Of all these he was a master.

I was not at the RSC until 1985, but have heard that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s—whilst the school was flourishing academically with a combination of expert technical help to gifted academics—there were problems arising from the personnel structure. For example, there were not many PhD students. As the ‘founding fathers’ John Birch and David Craig were nearing retirement, the rotating Deanship of the school fell to Lew Mander. He was Dean for two periods of five and three years. He addressed those problems with everyone’s confidence.

He also kept up the battle to retain the ‘first among equals’, rotating Deanship against simplistic academic homogeny—as a fair process of distributing the research resources. The five-year research fellowships were one problem as many Fellows were so good that in other places they would have got tenure. A number did subsequently join the RSC staff, but others went on to important posts elsewhere. It was a problem of how to manage the opportunities for new people and justice for the best of the young colleagues in a new school. At that time, I recall that the rule in the still relatively young IAS was that there were only a few promotions per year for the whole ANU. With Commonwealth legislation for internal promotion in the early 1990s, the matter disappeared.

Lew took a personal interest in the buildings of the RSC. He worked hard on the concept and design of the Craig building—opened in 1995 to accommodate theory and biological chemistry as well as a new tearoom. When safety strictures threatened—because of fume cupboard inadequacy—he championed construction of a relatively less expensive addition to the Birch building in the same style. This was to be a two-storied addition above the workshops.

Lew came to see me in Oxford in 1984 about whether I would be interested to apply for David Craig’s Chair of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the RSC. Though I was perfectly happy in Oxford, his picture of the school was persuasive as were the opportunities to start new X-ray work in Australia. I have never regretted coming to this community of scholars. Right from the welcoming barbeque of our whole family at the Manders’ house until now, I have valued his advice and friendship. I and all of his colleagues were very glad of his recognition by the award of Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2018. He was a respected person whose scholarship, friendship and advice were available to all. His parting is a loss to Australia and us all. He died on 8 February 2020.

Vale Lew, our good friend and valued colleague. We honour you in your parting from us. You have been a most creative chemist, a loved and just Dean of the Research School of Chemistry, and a personal friend of many of us.

Additional Resources

Citation details

John White, 'Mander, Lewis Norman (Lew) (1939–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 30 November 2022.

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