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David Orme Masson

Sir David Orme Masson KBE (1858-1937) was a scientist born in England who emigrated to Australia to become the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne.

He was the son of David Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, and his wife, Emily Rosaline Orme. He was born in London on 13 January 1858, his father being then Professor of English Literature at University College, London. Masson was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and then at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated in Arts and Science. He studied under Friedrich Wöhler at Göttingen before obtaining a position with (Sir) William Ramsay at Bristol, with whom he did research work on phosphorus. He returned to Edinburgh University in 1881 with a Research Scholarship for three years, towards the end of which he obtained his D.Sc. degree. Here he was involved in the founding of the Student Representative Council and the Student Union. His research during this period included investigations in the preparation and properties of glyceryl trinitrite and nitroglycerine. In October, 1886 he arrived in Australia to take up the position as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. His Inaugural Lecture, was given on 23 March 1887, on "The Scope and Aim of Chemical Science". Though there were few students in chemistry, the laboratory equipment was inadequate even for them, and one of his first tasks was the preparation of plans for a new laboratory and lecture theatre. There was a steady growth of students and, as the staff was small, Masson was much occupied with teaching work for many years. He contrived, however, to find some time for research, and during his first 20 years at the university contributed several papers to leading scientific journals.

In 1912 Masson became President of the Professorial Board, and in that capacity during the next four years undertook much of the work, that in a present-day university, would be done by a paid Vice-Chancellor. He also did important scientific work in connection with the 1914-18 war. In 1915 he was asked by the Prime Minister of Australia W. M. Hughes to act as Chairman of a Committee to draw up a scheme for a Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry, but difficulties arose and it was not until 1920 that the Institute was established. In 1926 it became the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, of which Masson was a member until his death. Other activities included his participation in the organization of Douglas Mawson's expedition to the Antarctic in 1911-14, and his interest in the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was President 1911-13. He was Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the British Association meeting in Australia in 1914. When Sir William Ramsay, retired from his professorship at University College, London, in 1913, Masson was offered the position, but he had developed so many interests in Australia that he decided to refuse the appointment. Among Societies in which he was interested were the Melbourne University Chemical Society, the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria, both of which he founded, and the Australian Chemical Institute of which he was the first President (1917-20). He was associated with Sir Edgeworth David in the founding of the Australian National Research Council, and was its president in 1922-3. At the end of 1923 Masson retired from his chair at Melbourne and became Professor Emeritus. After his resignation he continued his interest in the progress of chemical science, and sat on several councils and committees. He died at Melbourne on 10 August 1937. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1903 and was created CBE in 1918 and KBE in 1922. He married in 1886 Mary, daughter of Sir John Struthers, who survived him with a son and a daughter. Lady Masson did valuable work during the 1914-18 war, and was created CBE in 1918. The son, James Irvine Orme Masson, born at Melbourne in 1887, had a distinguished academic career, becaming Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield in 1938, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1939. Masson published Three Centuries of Chemistry in 1925. A daughter, Flora Marjorie, now Mrs W. E. Bassett, published in 1940, The Governor's Lady, and another daughter, Elsie Rosaline, who married the distinguished anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, and died in 1935, was also a writer; she published An Untamed Territory in 1915.

Among his students were Sir David Rivett who succeeded him in his chair, and E. J. Hartung who followed Rivett. Bertram Dillon Steele was also one of his students.


  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Masson, David". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 
  • Masson of Melbourne, The Life and Times of David Orme Masson, Len Weickhardt, Royal Australian Chemical Institute, 1989.
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1949 edition of Dictionary of Australian Biography from
Project Gutenberg of Australia, which is in the public domain in Australia and the United States of America.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "David_Orme_Masson". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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