Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Immersed in Chemistry

Photo courtesy Prof White

John White in a safety inspection of the drained “swimming pool” of the nuclear reactor at Institut Laue Langevin in Grenoble, France, 1978. Photo courtesy Prof White

By Peter Pockley

Arguably Australia’s most internationally experienced and prominent chemistry researcher, Professor John White continues to produce original research long after normal retirement age, and he is, unshakeably, a committed Christian.

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John White had chemistry in his brain from age 8, and his enthusiasm for this fundamental science has never waned throughout his 71 years. His engineer father, George, had given him a chemistry textbook that he kept by his bed in Newcastle, NSW, while he set up “a private lab” in his grandmother’s house to investigate the properties of a new chemical he bought every week from the local pharmacist. He recalls: “Basically, my family was tremendously supportive and fed my interest in the subject”.

He taught himself how to identify the presence of metals in substances, and “guided by Sherwood Taylor’s book I never had an explosion or fire. But, I once sucked up in a pipette mercury nitrate, which is highly poisonous. Taylor told me to swallow the yolk of an egg [as antidote] and, though a revolting experience, I escaped unharmed.”

He did not understand about atoms and molecules being the basis of chemicals and their reactions until he was taught about them at Newcastle High, a selective school with science masters who “were good, and even built their own equipment”. He reflects: “I do tremendously regret that children at school today don’t do interesting experiments [like I did] at school any more”. White’s abiding philosophy of education in science is “learning by doing”. As for priorities, he says: “I’m a teacher and fascinated by research, but I would never do...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

reminiScience draws on extended biographical interviews recorded by Peter Pockley for the Oral History Archives of the National Library of Australia. This article was originally published in Australasian Science's October 2008 edition.