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Lawrence Walter (Laurie) Nichol (1935–2015)

by Peter Jeffrey

Laurie Nichol, by Rob Little, 1981

Laurie Nichol, by Rob Little, 1981

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-913

Lawrence (Laurie) Walter Nichol, a former Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University, has died at the age of 80. Laurie’s professional career as a scientist and university administrator started at The Australian National University as a Research Fellow in A.G. Ogston’s Department of Physical Biochemistry in the John Curtin School of Medical Research in 1963 and culminated at the University 30 years later, as Vice‑Chancellor.

Laurie Nichol originally trained as a high school teacher in Adelaide, where he was born in April 1935, and had spent a short time teaching in the SA education system before his awakened interest in science led him back to the University of Adelaide to complete an honours degree in the Department of Physical and Inorganic Chemistry led by the newly appointed Professor D.O. Jordan. Jordan was an expert on the chemistry of the then novel DNA molecule, and his interest in biology had given the department an excitingly biological bias, also reflected in some new staff appointments. Laurie and his friend D.J. Winzor were enthused and began PhDs on the proteins urease and ovalbumin, respectively, under the supervision of J.M. Creeth. The work was to use new experimental techniques and the sophisticated theory of physical chemistry to characterise these rather mysterious giant biological molecules. Nicol and Winzor continued to collaborate and compete amiably in this field for the rest of their professional lives.

Laurie completed his PhD in 1961 and travelled to the US on a Fulbright Scholarship to work with celebrated American physical chemist Gerson Kegeles at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before international jet travel became routine, it was common to travel to postdoctoral positions by sea, a fortunate choice for Laurie as he met his future wife Rosemary on the P&O boat, also bound for North America. It may have been the sight of Laurie’s legs in a short Roman toga at a fancy dress ball on board that made up Rosemary’s mind, as the pair eventually married back in Australia in 1963 and remained happily married for more than 50 years. The sojourn in Kegeles’ lab was also seminal for Laurie professionally as he spent a significant part of his time writing an influential review that summarised and classified what was then known about the interactions of proteins with each other. This research set the parameters for his future scientific interests, the analysis of interactions between similar and dissimilar macromolecules (including proteins and nucleic acids) and between proteins and small molecules. Subsequent appointments in Ogston’s lab at the ANU, then as Senior Lecturer, later Reader, in the Russell Grimwade School of Biochemistry at the University of Melbourne and back to the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU in 1971 as successor to Sandy Ogston as Head of Department, consolidated Laurie’s position as the most significant figure in this scientific field in the country.

His move into pure research at the Institute of Advanced Studies was a loss to academic teaching as he had been notably successful as a Lecturer at the University of Melbourne, even being applauded at the conclusion of some of his lectures there. However, he continued to supervise PhD students throughout his career and his ex-students now occupy senior academic positions in biological science faculties throughout Australia and overseas. Research carried out with students and colleagues resulted in over 100 publications in international journals and two books on interacting proteins. He received the David Syme Research prize in 1966, the Lemberg Medal of the Australian Biochemical Society in 1977 and held a DSc from the University of Adelaide. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute in 1971 and of the Australian Academy of Science in 1981.

During his research career at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, Laurie was to serve two terms (from 1980) as Chair of the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies, the governing body of the research arm of the ANU. He discovered a flair and a liking for academic administration, which led to appointment as Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in 1985 and effectively ended his research. The move to Armidale gave new scope for Laurie’s formidable organisational talents and also allowed Rosemary to utilise her warm personality and social gifts in presiding over what is surely the most splendid academic residence in Australia. Laurie’s long and happy marriage had always provided a secure base and was a significant factor in enabling his brilliantly successful academic career, which culminated in appointment in 1988 to one of the most prestigious academic positions in the country, Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University. At the presentation of his portrait as Vice-Chancellor by Brian Seidel, Laurie remarked that he saw the position as part of a succession and that his aim had been ‘to make the ANU one of the world’s great universities’. Since then the University has indeed been named several times among the top 50 universities in the world. In farewelling Laurie on his retirement in 1993, the Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Yeend noted that his six years in the post had been momentous, with many challenges arising from government green and white papers that introduced radical changes to the tertiary education sector. In spite of this, the University had made great strides on many fronts. The University Council thanked Professor Nichol for his valuable guidance, wise counsel and unfailing good humour and optimism during this difficult period.

On retirement from the ANU, Laurie and Rosemary moved to an apartment in North Sydney where they were able to enjoy the cultural life of the city and indulge their mutual passion for travel. Laurie had a lifetime interest in the movies, especially MGM musicals, and was an enthusiastic retailer of their plots and casts. Other long interests were stamp collecting, art and Spanish. He often used to fill the long hours of international travel by learning Spanish verbs and he and Rosemary visited Spain often. Laurie wore his academic distinction lightly and was an unpretentious and entertaining companion who enjoyed sneaking off for a drink occasionally for Friday afternoon bull sessions, which were a fertile source of research ideas. A devoted family man, he managed to combine his busy career with a successful and happy family life and raised three sons, Scott, Stuart and David, with Rosemary. Laurie passed away in Sydney after a short illness on 29 June 2015. He is survived by Rosemary and his three sons, two daughters-in-law and grandchildren, Jack, Hannah, Angus and Lucinda.

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Citation details

Peter Jeffrey, 'Nichol, Lawrence Walter (Laurie) (1935–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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