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Howard Hamlet McKern (1917–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

Howard McKern was a quiet, thoughtful backroom boy with a brilliant, wideranging mind, who found his intellectual home at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney (now the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney Observatory and Discovery Centre collections store).

He fell in love not just with the life of a researcher and curator but the entire environment, including the inner-city suburb of Ultimo where the museum was placed, and in his intellectual outreach with the museum contributed to closing the gap between the arts and sciences and advancing the concept that all knowledge is one.

Howard Hamlet Gordon McKern was born on March 23, 1917, in Mosman, the son of James Gordon McKern, a World War I veteran who was a geologist, mining engineer and Mobil Oil technical executive, and his wife, Edith Mary Hamlet, daughter of William Mogford Hamlet, who had served as NSW government analyst from 1887 to 1915.

McKern attended Newington College in Sydney from 1931 to 1935, achieving his Leaving Certificate with honours in chemistry and geology. He then worked in analytical and organic chemistry for the Parramatta chemical firm Meggitt and was promoted to assistant chemist. In 1942 he received a diploma in chemistry from Sydney Technical College.

In 1945, McKern joined the museum, which had a history of chemical research stretching back to 1880. With the associated technical college, it was intended as an education centre for the working people of Sydney. McKern was placed in charge of the chemistry department, directing research into essential oils. In that period he also married Lilli Yassim.

In 1957 he completed a master of science degree at the University of NSW. His thesis topic was: Studies in the essential oil flora of Australia, with particular reference to physiological forms.

Much of his research had been done at the museum. The topic was at the forefront of a new area of research, which focused on volatile oils and taxonomy of Australian flora.

That same year McKern was made a fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. He also suffered a personal tragedy when Lilli died.

McKern focused more on his work. His restless mind took him beyond the bounds of pure science. A present curator at the Powerhouse Museum, Des Barrett, said he was interested not only in the technical aspects of items. ''If he had ceramics on display he was interested in the structure and composition of the material and the social context in which they were made. He was especially interested in the history of chemistry and science generally,'' he said.

In 1960, McKern was appointed the museum's deputy director. He also served a term as president of the University of NSW Chemical Society. In 1963 he served a term as NSW president of the Royal Society. That year, he married Charlotte Grosleight, a doctor's assistant whom he had known for some years. Charlotte was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. McKern spoke German fluently and the marriage was very happy.

At the museum, McKern was involved in a profound intellectual change, when a new generation of humanities-trained curators started working beside curators whose background had been in scientific research. He was interested in the arts, including music, literature, history, art and languages, and some of his paintings were highly regarded.

He got to know Ultimo well, spending his lunch hours walking the surrounding streets and occasionally painting what he saw. But he hardly ignored his scientific calling, publishing more than 40 papers and specialising in phytochemistry, a study of the chemical make-up of plants. In its research functions, the museum worked closely with the University of Sydney, which was not far away. In 1968, he was awarded the Royal Society Medal for services to science.

In March 1977, McKern retired. He received the 1977 Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal. Two years later, the system was rationalised and the research functions of the museum were taken over by the universities and the CSIRO. The museum changed premises in 1988 and set itself up as the Powerhouse Museum.

McKern remained intellectually active, and in 1995 had a book published on his grandfather William Hamlet. The museum had not forgotten McKern and in 2004 gave him a Distinguished Service Award. In 2005, he was included in a video presentation by museum curator Annie Turnbull: Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole, a History of Pyrmont and Ultimo.

Howard McKern is survived by Charlotte, his stepson George Grosleight, and a sister, Sheila Simpson-Lee.

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by Howard Hamlet McKern

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'McKern, Howard Hamlet (1917–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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