Dr Hugh A McKenzie CChem FRSC

1923 - 2008

Hugh McKenzie died on July 24 from pneumonia, after six decades of contributions to chemistry in Australia. He had wide ranging research interests and made contributions to both pure and applied chemistry. He worked on subjects as diverse as the role of water in protein structure and function, the determination of the oxygen content of orange juice, and the effects of genetic variations in milk proteins on milk yield and composition.

Hugh McKenzie

Hugh was born on March 5, 1923 in Sydney. His mother came from the Shannon family, some of the first Jewish settlers in Australia. Her father was Isaac Shannon, a successful businessman and community leader in Cooma. Hugh's father, a Gentile, was a clerk in the NSW railways. His passion in life was amateur boxing, an interest Hugh did not share.

Hugh grew up in Guildford, Sydney. He chose to attend Parramatta High: at the time the only co-educational secondary school with Class 1 status in Sydney. In 1988 Hugh wrote about this education:
"Over the years, I have read many biographies of chemists and am of the view that the majority of them have been inspired by a great science teacher at school. In my case, I was influenced by my teacher, W.E. Clark. He taught me chemistry for five years. Clark's standards were exacting: one had to understand the theoretical basis of an experiment, and perform it meticulously. The kind of sloppiness that one sees around the world today in the performance of experiments in research laboratories was simply not allowed in that School laboratory."

At age 16, he matriculated as the dux of Parramatta High School.  After this stimulating and challenging high school experience Hugh found science lectures at the University of Sydney somewhat of a letdown. However, he eventually found a kindred spirit in his Physical Chemistry lecturer, J.E. Mills. However, unfortunately, during his honours year Mills died, aged only 37. But Hugh was then blessed to receive mentoring from several distinguished chemists including David Mellor, Frank Dwyer, and Ronald Nyholm. Nyholm later went to a Chair at University College London, FRS, and became Science adviser to the Queen.

Following a highly successful Masters thesis on transition metal complexes, Hugh received invitations to work at Caltech and Princeton. In 1948, he chose to spend a year in the Frick Chemical Laboratory at Princeton University. At that time it was unusual for Australian scientists to choose to get overseas experience in the USA, rather than the U.K. At Princeton, he worked with, among others, Sir Hugh Taylor. It was there he met Walter Kauzmann, who became a lifetime friend, and helped stimulate his fascination with protein chemistry and particularly the interaction of water with proteins. It was the beginning of decades of association with Princeton. Forty years later he was delighted when his son, Ross, completed a PhD in physics at Princeton.

After some time in Scandinavia, including at the Carlsberg Laboratories in Copenhagen, Hugh returned to Sydney in 1950. He established the first unit of biophysical chemistry in Australia, a joint initiative between CSIRO and the University of Sydney.

In 1954 he published a paper in the Australian Journal of Chemistry on the Kjeldahl determination of nitrogen. This paper has since been cited more than 600 times.

He was also blessed that year because he met his soul mate, Margaret Dewar. She was working in the Dental Institute, having completed a PhD in London and then worked for a year in Rochester. Common interests they shared included science and their overseas experiences. They were married February 8, 1956. This led to a lifelong personal and professional partnership that only ended with Margaret's death a few months after they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Hugh completed a PhD at the University of Sydney in 1957. Two years later he moved to the ANU as a foundation member of the Department of Physical Biochemistry in the John Curtin School of Medical Research. In 1967 he published a review of Milk Proteins in Advances in Protein Chemistry. This was later selected as an ISI Citation Classic. It also led to Hugh editing a two volume book published by Academic Press. In the 1980's with John Edsall from Harvard Hugh wrote two highly-cited review articles on water and proteins.

Besides writing influential review articles, Hugh recruited several high profile and gifted collaborators, including Edsall, Sir David Phillips (Oxford), Mervyn Griffiths (CSIRO), and Lloyd Smythe (UNSW).

A significant scientific legacy of Hugh was the training he provided to postgraduate students. Some of those who went on to highly successful scientific careers include Kevin Bell, Greg Ralston, William Sawyer, and Gerry Wake.

In 1988, Hugh left the ANU after almost 30 years there. The ANU Reporter noted, "He has served on many boards and committees, where his commitment to the idea of the University as a community of scholars and his frankly expressed views have formed an effective and colourful strand in the life of ANU."

Hugh did not believe in retirement; ages 65 to 80, he spent in the School of Chemistry, University College, University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. This time was a real blessing to him and Margaret. Freed from the administrative and political burdens of working at the John Curtin School he got a new lease on life. Hugh taught, and coordinated "general studies" courses: "Chemistry in Defence and Peace", "Chemistry and Society" and "Chemistry of Life". These were directed at giving non-science (Arts and Engineering) students an understanding of the place of chemistry in the world at large as well as military applications in terms of supporting troops in the field (health, food safety, defence against chemical, biological and nuclear warfare). Hugh talked about radiation safety, vitamins and trace elements, food preservation, water purification and many other things. There was a strong historical element, meant to put things in perspective, so that students, as prospective officers, might perhaps avoid the past errors of military campaigns and not re-invent the wheel in solving practical supply problems and looking after the people they will eventually command. This was based on his own experiences in WW2 and given the technical enquiries his colleagues still receive from former students, a well-considered strategy.

Hugh also enjoyed continuing various research projects, the relationships he formed with new colleagues, and the support he was able to give them as they underwent a difficult time of restructuring.

Hugh was blessed with an incredible eye for scientific detail and accuracy. This was put to excellent use when he was one of six editors of the Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which contained over 17,000 entries, and was first published in 1997.

Hugh was a man of strong convictions and was not afraid to serve on committees, write reports, and keep meticulous records, both at work and in the community.

Having been blessed by his education at Parramatta High School Hugh was a strong supporter of public schools, sending both of his children to them. He was Chairman of the Board for Canberra High School for several years in the 1970's and was known as being very supportive of teachers and of high academic standards.

Hugh is survived by his two children, Judith (an archaeologist at Oxford) and Ross (a theoretical physicist at University of Queensland), and two grandchildren.

Peter Jeffrey (ANU), Philip Kuchel (U. Sydney), Ross McKenzie (U. Queensland), and Ken Harris (UNSW)


The Royal Society of Chemistry is not responsible for individual opinions expressed on this page.