Isaac Herbert Boas (1878–1955)

By Helen WolffApril 27th, 2020

I. H. Boas was one of Australia's most successful research directors. It is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the world owes thanks for the fact that paper can now he produced from hardwoods. Everyone else said it was completely impossible. (Ian W. Wark, 1968)

Early life

Isaac Herbert Boas was born on 20 October 1878 in Adelaide, son of Abraham Tobias Boas, Jewish rabbi, and his wife Elizabeth, née Solomon.

Tertiary education and early career

He was educated at Prince Alfred College, the South Australian School of Mines and Industries, and the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1899).

In 1901 he was appointed lecturer in geology and mineralogy at the university and later worked as a demonstrator in physics with (Sir) William Henry Bragg and Professor E. H. Rennie. At Bragg’s urging, Boas accepted in 1903 a lectureship in physics and chemistry at the technical school at Charters Towers, Queensland; in two colourful and exacting years there he learnt ‘how to tackle problems of which I had no experience’. In 1906 he became lecturer in chemistry at the Technical School, Perth. He married Adela Isabella Solomon in Adelaide on 1 January 1908. For his survey of Collie coals, made in 1914 at the request of a State royal commission, he was awarded the degree of M.Sc. by the University of Western Australia.

Boas became increasingly interested in the chemistry of wood and associated products. The shortages of World War I convinced him that Australia needed a central organization to deal with the problems of the forest industries. In his makeshift laboratory at the Technical School, he investigated the fundamental and chemical reactions involved in the soda process of paper-making, uninhibited by existing techniques and undismayed by adverse reports of visiting experts. Making pulp from karri and producing a few sheets of paper from it, he showed that the apparent unsuitability of Australian hardwoods was due to misconceived techniques rather than the timber itself.

Time at CSIRO

In 1919 Boas persuaded the Australian States to establish a forest products laboratory, to be set up in Perth under the auspices of the projected Commonwealth Bureau of Science and Industry. Appointed officer-in-charge, in 1919-20 he toured similar laboratories in North America, England, Europe and India. When by 1921 the bill to establish the bureau had not been passed, Boas resigned to become chief chemist in the Melbourne leather firm of Michaelis, Hallenstein & Co. He soon found a common interest with Professor D. O. Masson in the problem of scientific control of the tanning, glue and gelatin industries in Victoria. Meanwhile in Perth, a former student L. R. Benjamin was carrying on where Boas had left off. Despite difficulties, pulping and paper-making continued, extending to almost all Australian eucalypts.

Boas was appointed chief of the Division of Forest Products when it was set up in Melbourne in 1928 under the reorganised Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. In 1935 he toured North America and Europe and attended the Fourth British Empire Forestry Conference in South Africa.  In April 1944 he retired as Chief of his Division so that he could join the board of New Zealand Forest Products Ltd, but he remained on half time with C.S.I.R. until May 1945, working as a consultant and completing a book (published in Melbourne in 1947) on the Commercial Timbers of Australia.

Career highlights at other organisations

During World War II he was, among other positions, assistant controller for timber supplies in the Department of Supply and Development, and was on the advisory committee of aeronautical research; he was also a member of the Commonwealth committees on development of secondary industries and flax production.


He held a number of offices after retirement, including the chairmanship of an advisory panel on furniture standards. A foundation member of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and fellow in 1944, he was elected general president in 1952.

Throughout his life Boas was closely associated with the Jewish community. He was president of the St. Kilda Hebrew Congregation in 1930-32 and 1934-36, a member of the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board, and chairman of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society in 1936-46. A member of the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, he took a great interest in Israel and helped its forest development; the Wood Technology Institute of Israel was named after him.

Survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter, he died at Hawthorn, Victoria, on 16 October 1955. The University of Melbourne’s Boas Memorial Lectures for secondary school students were inaugurated in 1961.


Newman Rosenthal, ‘Boas, Isaac Herbert (1878–1955)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 April 2020.

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