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Rickards, Rodney Warren (Rod) (1934–2007)

by Lewis N. Mander and Martin A. Bennett

Rodney (Rod) Warren Rickards made outstanding contributions to the organic and biological chemistry of compounds of medical, biological, agricultural and veterinary importance. His interests ranged widely and included antibiotics produced by micro-organisms, regulatory factors that initiate antibiotic production or control cell differentiation and sexuality in micro-organisms, elicitors that communicate between bacteria and plants, mammalian hormones of the prostaglandin group that control many aspects of human physiology, juvenile hormones that mediate the development and reproductive physiology of higher dipteran insects and the therapeutically active components of cannabis resin.

Rod was born in Manly on 30 June 1934 and lived there with his parents and elder brother, Alan, for most of his early life. His father, Redvers Ernest Rickards, was New South Wales Crown Solicitor while his mother, Marjorie Edna Marjason, was a Commonwealth Bank officer who gave up employment when she married. Mother and children moved to Inverell in northern New South Wales for a year in 1942 to avoid a feared Japanese attack on Sydney. Rod attended Manly Primary School and North Sydney Boys’ High School, where he studied chemistry, physics, mathematics, English, French, Latin and German, and acquired a lifelong love of cricket.

At school he excelled in chemistry and physics, receiving honours in these subjects on his Leaving Certificate, but was surprised that he had done better in physics, into which he had put less effort. Only when he entered the University of Sydney as an undergraduate in 1952 did he realise that his ageing school chemistry teacher had been using out-of-date material. After a brief flirtation with chemical engineering, Rod settled on chemistry. Because of his interest in the chemistry of living systems, he elected to study for an honours degree with Professor Arthur Birch, one of the great masters of the subject, who had returned to Australia in 1952, after a prolonged period in the UK, as Professor of Organic Chemistry and Head of Department.

In 1955, Rod graduated with first-class honours as well as the University Medal and began a long-lasting research collaboration with Birch in biosynthesis, the study of how, by the use of enzymes, living organisms make natural products from the simple precursors available to them.

In late 1955, frustrated at the restrictive research environment in which he found himself, Birch left the University of Sydney to take up the prestigious Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of Manchester. Rod joined him there in 1956 to continue biosynthetic work on mould metabolites that had been started in Sydney. Until 1958 Rod was supported by a CSIRO Overseas Student Scholarship; in that year he was appointed Assistant Lecturer and in 1961 promoted to Lecturer.

In 1963, The Australian National University decided to establish a world-class Research School of Chemistry (RSC) as part of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Canberra. Together with Professors Arthur Birch at Manchester and David Craig at University College London, Rickards was deeply involved as a consultant in the planning and design of the new chemistry building and its laboratories. Later he, along with Richard Bramley (a physical chemist) and John Harper (the RSC laboratory manager), played a critical supervisory role in its construction, working closely with the architects, Eggleston, Secomb and McDonald. In 1966 Rickards joined the Foundation Professors, Birch and Craig, as a foundation appointment in the school, a move that also enabled him and his colleague, the crystallographer Glen Robertson, to indulge an interest in trout fishing in the nearby Snowy Mountains. Rickards declined an offer to return to Manchester as Professor of Organic Chemistry and was promoted to Professorial Fellow in 1968 and to Professor in 1992.

The move to Canberra enabled Rickards to develop further his program for the determination of the structure and stereochemistry of antibiotics and other biologically active microbial products. On the basis of his outstanding research, Rod was elected a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) in 1968 and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1981. In the following year he received the H.G. Smith Memorial Medal, the premier research award of the RACI, and, 10 years later, the Adrien Albert award of the Medical and Agricultural Division of the RACI. He also received an Australian Centenary Medal in 2003. He gave many plenary lectures at national and international conferences, especially in the Pacific region, and presented the Liversidge Memorial Lecture of ANZAAS in 1975, the inaugural Sir Robert Price Lecture (CSIRO) in 1990, the Royal Society of Chemistry Lectures in 1994–95, and the inaugural Australian Journal of Chemistry Lecture in 2000. Rod held visiting academic appointments at the Universities of Wisconsin (USA), Auckland (New Zealand), Cape Town (South Africa) and Canterbury (Christchurch, New Zealand), and for several years was an external examiner and adviser for the BSc (Hons) degree at the University of Mauritius. His broad knowledge of the chemistry of antibiotics and his excellent command of the English language all owed him to provide significant assistance to many researchers during his almost 40 years as a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Antibiotics. Rod was Chairman of the RACI’s Division of Organic Chemistry between 1980 and 1982 and was a member of the RACI Executive Council during 1982. He also chaired the National Committee for Chemistry of the Australian Academy of Science in the period 1986–89, and served as a member of several of the Academy’s overseas exchange committees for over 15 years, chairing the Europe Exchange Committee from 2003 to 2006. He served on the Occupational Health and Safety Committee of The Australian National University for many years, including a period as its chair.

After his retirement in 1999, Rod was appointed Emeritus Professor at The Australian National University and a Visiting Scientist at the CSIRO Division of Entomology, thus enabling him to continue several productive research collaborations. Rod had an uncanny eye for the smallest yet often significant detail and brought an impressive and wide-ranging knowledge of chemistry to problems. He was always generous with his time, ready to discuss and modestly to offer advice based on his extensive knowledge and experience. He gave members of his research group considerable independence in setting up and solving their particular problem and impressed on them the necessary rigorous, critical attitude in interpreting results. Invariably, his good humour, good sense and approachability were recognised and appreciated by colleagues at all levels.

Rod’s lectures were masterpieces of lucidity and logical presentation. He was also a superb raconteur with an excellent memory and a fund of amusing anecdotes. He could recite, from memory, extracts from works as diverse as Caesar’s Gallic Wars (in Latin, with English translation), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Clancy of the Overflow. He had the gift of making people laugh, though never at others’ expense, and was respected and admired for his strong sense of values, his integrity and his wisdom. He was a very private person, devoted to his family.

Rod died suddenly and unexpectedly at home on 17 December 2007, his last completed task having been, ironically enough, a detailed biographical memoir of his mentor, Arthur Birch, written with Sir John Cornforth (Nobel Prize, 1975). He is survived by his wife of 22 years, Anna, who, as Anna Becker, had been one of his PhD students, and by his daughter, Helen, of whose promise and achievements he was intensely, though never openly, proud.

* This edited and abridged obituary has been drawn from the Australian Academy of Science memoir, ‘Rodney Warren Rickards 1934–2007’. This memoir was also published in Historical Records of Australian Science 22(2) (2001): 229–245.

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Citation details

Lewis N. Mander and Martin A. Bennett, 'Rickards, Rodney Warren (Rod) (1934–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 March 2023.

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