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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Steele, Bertram Dillon (1870–1934)

by Barry Chiswell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Bertram Dillon Steele (1870-1934), professor of chemistry, was born on 30 May 1870 at Plymouth, England, son of Samuel Steele, surgeon, and his wife Hariette Sarah, née Acock. Educated at Plymouth Grammar School, he began an apprenticeship with his father; in 1889 he migrated to Melbourne where he attended the Victorian College of Pharmacy in 1890-91 to complete his training.

Having practised as a pharmacist, in 1896 Steele enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne before transferring to science. He graduated (B.Sc., 1898) with the exhibition and first-class honours in chemistry among other awards. Professor D. O. Masson's recommendations secured Steele a brief acting professorship in chemistry at the University of Adelaide in 1899. On 18 September he married Amy Woodhead at Surrey Hills, Melbourne.

With his wife, Steele travelled to London to work with Professor J. N. Collie, then to Breslau, Germany, for research under Professor R. Abegg. He attracted the admiration of (Sir) William Ramsay at London and Professor F. Haber at Karlsruhe. In 1902 he was granted a D.Sc. in absentia by the University of Melbourne. He taught briefly in Dublin, at McGill University, Montreal, and as assistant professor at Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh.

From 1 March 1906 Steele was successively appointed lecturer and acting professor in chemistry at the University of Melbourne. His research into the reactions of gaseous compounds demanded great skill in making scientific equipment and in glassblowing; his construction of the Steele-(Sir Kerr) Grant microbalance, which was sensitive to 4x10-6 mg (4 ng), won him Ramsay's acclaim; he also published extensively in physical, organic and inorganic chemistry.

Appointed to the foundation chair of chemistry at the University of Queensland from 20 December 1910, Steele instituted courses in the former kitchen and scullery of the old Government House and supervised the design of the university's new chemistry building. Of medium height, with '10% genial smile and 90% sang froid', Steele was a brilliant lecturer who, as president of the board of faculties, exercised academic leadership with strength, thoroughness and tact. He appreciated music and sport and collected objets d'art. Immaculately groomed, with starched collar and neat bow-tie, he had a high brow, handsome features and wore spectacles.

In 1915, to help the war effort, Steele returned to University College, London. His work led to a British government invitation to design, build and operate a munitions factory to produce synthetic phenol. He returned to Brisbane in 1919 in which year the Royal Society elected him a fellow — its only fellow then in Queensland. Serving on the University of Queensland's second and third senate (1919-26), in 1923 Steele became chairman of the royal commission to investigate the prickly pear problem and in 1927 undertook a study for the Queensland government of the Roma oil bore.

From 1927 his health declined. Retiring from the university on 28 February 1931, Steele died at Parkerview Hospital, Brisbane, on 12 April 1934. Childless, he was survived by his wife. His remains in Lutwyche cemetery were later cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Hardman-Knight, The Life and Work of Bertram Dillon Steele (Brisb, 1941)
  • B. Chiswell, A Diamond Period (manuscript, 1986, privately held)
  • Australasian Journal of Pharmacy, Dec 1910, p 383
  • Journal of Chemical Society (London), 1934, p 1479
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 3, Dec 1934, p 345
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute Proceedings, 25, 1958, p 413
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 12, 13, 14 Apr 1934.

Citation details

Barry Chiswell, 'Steele, Bertram Dillon (1870–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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