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Birch, Arthur John (1915–1995)

by Michael Slaytor

This article was published online in 2019

Arthur John Birch (1915–1995), organic chemist, was born on 3 August 1915 at Paddington, Sydney, only child of English-born Arthur Spencer Birch, pastry chef, and his Tasmanian-born wife Lily, née Bailey. Arthur junior’s interest in science began as a boy, and his intellectual promise was shown when, from Sydney Technical High School, he came third in the State in chemistry and won a public exhibition in 1932. He enrolled at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1937; MSc, 1938), where his contemporaries included Rita Harradence (Lady Cornforth), (Sir) John Cornforth, Ernest Ritchie, and (Sir) Ronald Nyholm. Having won the 1934 Levey and 1936 Walter Burfitt scholarships, he graduated from his bachelor’s degree with first-class honours, sharing the university medal in organic chemistry with Harradence. He jointly won the John Coutts scholarship in 1937, and in 1938 was awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship.

Moving to the University of Oxford as a non-collegiate student (DPhil, 1940), Birch worked with (Sir) Robert Robinson. During World War II Robinson was heavily involved in committees and, in Birch’s words, his ‘neglect enabled me … to “do my own thing”’ (1995, 24). From 1941 to 1945 he was a member of the Home Guard. On 21 October 1948 at the parish church of St Peter in the East, he married Jessie Williams, a nurse. He worked at Trinity College, Cambridge, as the Smithson fellow of the Royal Society of London, from 1949.

In 1952 Birch became professor of organic chemistry at the University of Sydney. Although the study of chemistry expanded significantly in Sydney in the 1950s, he was frustrated by the shortage of money for equipment. After only three years he returned to England to take the chair of organic chemistry at the University of Manchester, which  provided him with adequate funding and access to good instrumentation. This was a period of rapidly increasing use of chromatography and spectroscopy for separation and identification. While these processes had been beyond the resources of the University of Sydney, Manchester was where much of this new instrumentation was developed.

During the early 1960s Birch was invited to become the foundation professor of organic chemistry at the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University in Canberra. The school was intended to provide a centre of excellence as well equipped as any in Europe or the United States of America. Having played a central role in helping to plan the new school, he relocated to Canberra in 1967 and worked there until his retirement in 1980, completing two terms as dean (1967–70 and 1973–76). The Arthur Birch lectureship was established at the school in 1981.

Birch was principally interested in discovery rather than invention or the application of discoveries. He was pre-eminent in three fields of organic chemistry: reduction, organometallics, and biosynthesis. In the opinion of Sir Derek Barton, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, he was ‘ten years ahead of his time’ (Rickards and Cornforth 2007, 40) in these fields. His most important work at Oxford, which he carried out while employed by Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd on a fellowship, was on the reduction of aromatic rings using sodium and ethanol in liquid ammonia. This process would later become known as the Birch reduction. At Cambridge he worked on steroid synthesis with his doctoral student Herchel Smith, who later independently manufactured the total synthesis of the oral contraceptive norgestrel. In 1951 Carl Djerassi, from the Mexican pharmaceutical company Syntex, saw the potential application of the Birch reduction in modifying progesterone to make the first oral contraceptive drug, norethindrone. Birch acted as a consultant to Syntex for many years from 1958. Smith and Djerassi died millionaires, but no British patents were taken out on the reduction. Barton later believed that Birch ‘was certainly very seriously considered for a Nobel prize’ (Birch 1995, xxiv).

While at Cambridge, Birch also renewed his interest in natural products and their biosynthesis. His earliest research had been on the identification of natural products found in Eucalyptus dives oil. Natural products from plants had long been of interest to chemists, primarily because of their potential use as drugs. He was one of the first chemists to be interested in their biosynthesis. In a series of papers in the Australian Journal of Chemistry in 1953—which had been rejected by the Journal of the Chemical Society owing to lack of experimental proof—he proposed the ‘acetate hypothesis,’ whereby polyketides derived from acetate could polymerise to phenolic compounds. Proof was soon provided with the availability of 14C acetate.

Outside his university role Birch advised on science policy and administration. In Australia he chaired the inquiry into the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (1976–77); was founding chairman of the Australian Marine Sciences and Technologies Advisory Committee (1979–81); and was president of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) from 1982 to 1986 and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) from 1977 to 1978. Internationally, he was an examiner on science and development policy in Denmark for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Between 1979 and 1987 he was a consultant for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and the United Nations Development Programme in the People’s Republic of China.

Many awards and honours came Birch’s way. Appointed CMG in 1979 and AC in 1987, he was a fellow of the AAS (1954), the Royal Society of London (1958), the Royal Institute of Chemistry (1960), and the RACI (1968); a full foreign academician of the Academy of Science of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1976); a foreign fellow of the Indian National Academy of Science (1989); and an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (1980), the Royal Society of New South Wales (1986), and the RACI (1994). He received honorary doctorates of science from the universities of Sydney (1977) and Manchester (1982), and Monash University (1982). Among his prizes were the H. G. Smith (1954) and the Leighton (1980) memorial medals from the RACI; the Matthew Flinders medal from the AAS (1972); the Royal Society’s Davy medal (1972); the Flintoff medal from the Chemical Society (1972); the Tetrahedron prize for creativity in organic chemistry (1987); and the ANZAAS medal from the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1990). In 1995 the main building of the Research School of Chemistry was named for him.

Birch was a man of wry humour, never at a person’s expense, and, as a supervisor, of great enthusiasm and constant encouragement. Students learnt to hide whatever they were currently working on in the laboratory, to counter his desire to help and prevent the possibility of cigar ash impeding their efforts. His enthusiasm was infectious and as a lecturer he was convincing and persuasive. He liked classical music and collected books on the history of chemistry. Having learned glass-blowing in order to make his own apparatus, in later life he enjoyed creating glass animals. In 1995 he published his autobiography, To See the Obvious; in it he acknowledged his wife for her support in his career and for ‘shar[ing] in my scientific achievements’ (Birch 1995, 81). He died on 8 December 1995 in Canberra, survived by his wife and their two daughters and three sons, and was cremated. The following year the organic chemistry division of the RACI named an award after him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Academy of Science. MS121, Arthur Birch Papers
  • Australian National University. AU ANUA 6, Arthur Birch Papers
  • Birch, Arthur J. To See the Obvious. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1995
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Rickards, Rodney W., and John Cornforth. ‘Arthur John Birch 3 August 1915–8 December 1995.’ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 53 (December 2007): 21–44
  • Rickards, Rod, and David Craig. ‘Professor Arthur J Birch AC, CMG, FRS, FAA, FRACI.’ ANU Reporter, 31 January 1996, 4

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Slaytor, 'Birch, Arthur John (1915–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/birch-arthur-john-109/text35278, published online 2019, accessed online 27 November 2020.

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