STEELE, Bertram Dillon (1870-1934)

STEELE, Bertram Dillon (1870-1934)
son of Samuel Madden Steele, was born at Plymouth, England, on 30 May 1870. He was educated at the Plymouth Grammar School, and came to Australia in 1889, where he qualified as a pharmaceutical chemist. He entered on the science course at the university of Melbourne in 1896, being then nearly 26 years of age, and did such distinguished work that when still only a second year student he was appointed tutorial lecturer in chemistry at the three affiliated colleges, Trinity, Ormond and Queen's. He graduated B.Sc. in 1899 with first-class honours in chemistry, having during his course won exhibitions in chemistry, natural philosophy and biology, and the Wyselaskie and university scholarships in chemistry. In 1899 Steele was appointed acting-professor of chemistry at Adelaide, and at the end of that year went to Europe with an 1851 scholarship. He worked with Professor Collie at London and did research work under Professor Abegg at Breslau. Returning to London he did research work with Sir William Ramsay, and then went to Canada and became a senior demonstrator in chemistry at McGill university, Montreal. He returned to Europe to become assistant professor of chemistry at the Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh. In 1905 he was appointed senior lecturer and demonstrator in chemistry at the university of Melbourne. While in this position Steele, working in conjunction with Kerr Grant, afterwards professor of Physics at the university of Adelaide, constructed a micro-balance that would turn with a load of 1/250,000 M.G.R.M. ["M.G.R.M." here represents "milligram." 1/250,000 milligram = 4 nanograms. Ebook editor] An account of this balance written by Steele and Grant was published in Vol. 82A of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1909. As a result of their work the remarkable researches of Dr Whytlaw Gray and Sir William Ramsay on the direct estimation of the density of the radium emanation was made possible. (W. A. Tilden, Sir William Ramsay, pp. 161 et seq. and Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. 84A, pp. 538 et seq.).
In December 1910 Steele was appointed professor of chemistry at the newly established university of Queensland. He was elected president of the board of faculties and his experience was of great use in setting the university on its course. His academic work was interrupted by the 1914-18 war, during the whole of which he was working for the ministry of munitions, London. In June 1915 he went to England with a new type of gas mask which he had invented, and an invention to be used against submarines, both of which were presented to the British government. While working for the government he was able to show that synthetic phenol could be produced for less than half the price then being paid for it. He worked out an entirely new process, and designed and had erected a large government factory for its production. While working for the government he refused an offer to go to America at £5000 a year and when it was suggested that an honour might be conferred courteously intimated that he was glad to work for his country without either additional salary or honours. Later on he did important work for the government in connexion with poison gases. On leaving England at the end of the war he received letters of thanks from Mr Winston Churchill and Lord Moulton for the great services he had rendered. He took up his university work again in 1919 and in that year was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. He had overworked during the war and his constitution never fully recovered from the strain. He resigned his chair in 1931 and lived in retirement at Brisbane until his death on 12 April 1934. He married Amy Woodhead of Melbourne who survived him. He had no children.
Steele was a man of medium height with a frank and open countenance, a completely unselfish outlook on life, and a personality that attracted both his students and his associate workers. He was a tireless worker and an ideal researcher—honest, patient, imaginative and cautious. Circumstances prevented him doing a large amount of original work, but much of the work he did during the war years was of a secret nature, the value of which cannot be estimated. One piece of early work may be mentioned, his research in connexion with the determination of transport numbers of electrolytes and the electrochemistry of non-aqueous solutions. The heavy work of organizing and carrying on a new department at the university of Queensland left him little time for research, but as chairman of the royal commission for the control of prickly pear he was associated with the successful solution of a problem which was a great danger to Queensland.
A. Hardman-Knight, A Tribute to a Great Scientist; The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 13 April 1934; The Argus, Melbourne, 13 April 1934; The Journal of the Chemical Society, 1934, p. 1479; Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. 116b. p. 409.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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  • Steele — /stil/ (say steel) noun 1. Bertram Dillon, 1870–1934, Australian scientist, born in England; noted for work in chemistry. 2. Joyce, 1909–91, Australian Liberal and Country League politician; first woman member of the SA parliament …  

  • Bertram Steele — Bertram Dillon Steele (30 May 1870 – 12 April 1934) was an Australian scientist.Steele was the son of Samuel Madden Steele, was born at Plymouth, England and educated at the Plymouth Grammar School. He came to Australia in 1889, where he… …   Wikipedia

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