Sir James Robert (Jerry) Price [1912-1999]

By Colin WardJanuary 24th, 2014


James Robert Price was born on 25 March 1912 at Kadina, a small town at the top of the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. He was the eldest of three children reared by Edgar James Price (1875-1937) and Mary Katherine Price (née Hughes, 1883-1937). Edgar was a bank manager for a couple of years before establishing his own accounting business in Mount Gambier.

Jerry Price was educated, first at a small Church of England school then at Umpherston College, a Presbyterian school in Mount Gambier. Umpherston College was essentially a girls’ school, but included a minority of boys. In 1923, Jerry was awarded a Vansittart scholarship to St Peter’s College, an elite boys’ school in Adelaide. For the first two years he was a boarder in the preparatory part of that school. He then spent four years in the Senior School where he was originally a boarder, but when the economic depression hit Australia in the late 1920s his father was unable to afford the fees, and for the last year or so of his secondary education Jerry lived with his mother’s aunt Mrs Edith Helen Turner (née Carruthers) who was “very helpful to [Jerry] but something of a dictator”

It was at St Peter’s College that Price was given the nickname ‘Jerry’ but he remained ‘Bob’ to his family ‘ hence his choice, in due course, to be known as ‘Sir Robert’ rather than ‘Sir James’ the name ‘Jerry’ came to be used generally and, to all those on first name terms, he was ‘Jerry’ for the rest of his life.

To pay for his undergraduate education Jerry won a cadetship in the Chemistry Department of the University of Adelaide working for Professor AK Macbeth commencing at the beginning of 1929, initially on a wage of $10 per week and later $25 per week. This position gave him the right to enrol in such courses as Macbeth approved, without payment of fees. Because of their workload, cadets took four years rather than the usual three to complete a BSc degree.

Jerry graduated BSc (Hons, first-class) from the University of Adelaide in December 1934, and MSc in July 1935 with a thesis entitled ‘Properties of Nitrophenylhydrazines and Absorption Spectra of Dimethyl-cyclohexanediones and 1,2,3-Benzotriazoles’. In 1935, following Macbeth’s strong recommendation, Jerry was one of two Australians awarded an 1851 Exhibition Science Research Scholarship for that year. He accepted this to work as a DPhil student under Professor Sir Robert Robinson at Oxford.

Jerry’s ‘apprenticeship’ in research at the University of Adelaide was very successful, and set the course of his career: “my future career was the result of Macbeth’s interest in natural product chemistry”

Oxford, the John Innes Horticultural Institution, and War

For two years Jerry lived at Magdalen College, Oxford while working at the Dyson Perrins Chemical Laboratory. His supervisor, Professor Sir Robert Robinson, was pre-eminent in the chemistry and biogenesis of plant natural products, and also in the synthesis of natural products. One of Robinson’s interests at that time was the chemistry of plant pigments, including anthocyanins and their aglycones, the anthocyanidins. Jerry worked on the anthocyanidins in Bougainvillaea glabra and graduated DPhil in 1937 with a thesis entitled ‘Colouring Matter of Bougainvillaea glabra‘.

Head of the Chemistry Section at the John Innes Horticultural Institution

Upon completion of the work for his DPhil at Oxford, and with Robinson’s recommendation, Jerry was appointed as Head of the Chemistry Section at the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton Park in South West London, near Wimbledon. At the time of his appointment Jerry was the only chemist on the staff ‘ his colleagues were all eminent geneticists, and all of them were Fellows of the Royal Society.

The research carried out by Jerry at the John Innes Horticultural Institution was on plant pigments, mainly on isolating the anthocyanins and investigating their role in the genetic variation of flower colour.

In 1939, Jerry was awarded a Rockefeller Scholarship, and with this he planned to go to the USA, after traveling first to Australia so that he and Joyce Brooke could get married. The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, however, enforced drastic changes, both professional and personal. Because of the war, Rockefeller (Traveling) Scholarships were cancelled, and Jerry decided to stay in the United Kingdom to help in whatever professional wartime service might be required.

While awaiting professional assignment in war service, Jerry served in the Home Guard (‘Dad’s Army’) and Joyce worked in first aid stations. In September 1941, Jerry was directed into the Chemical Inspection Department, Ministry of Supply, to supervise work in a group of five ICI factories in southwest Scotland in the manufacture of explosives and munitions.

CSIR and the Australian Phytochemical Survey

During the Second World War Australia had to become self-sufficient in the supply of certain drugs and CSIR became involved in a search for drugs from Australian plants. In 1945, in anticipation of the end of the war, CSIR advertised a position of Research Officer for an organic chemist to work in the then Division of Industrial Chemistry on a survey of Australian native plants for sources of potentially useful alkaloids. Jerry Price was the successful applicant.

The circumstances leading to this appointment are summarised as follows. CSIR’s first involvement in Australia’s efforts to become self-sufficient in some key drugs during the Second World War was in mid-1940. Dr C Barnard, Chief of the CSIR Division of Plant Industry, organised extensive field cultivation of some exotic drug plants which were extracted for alkaloids and other active constituents at the Department of Pharmacy, University of Sydney. A very important development was Barnard’s appointment in June 1944 of Dr LJ Webb as a ‘peripatetic botanist’ to boost the rate of collection of native plant species for chemical examination. Webb had an intimate knowledge of the flora of Queensland and a keen interest in poisonous plants and bush medicines, together with great drive and enthusiasm for the project.

Soon after Webb’s appointment it became apparent that there was a need within CSIR for an organic chemist who could give undivided attention to the isolation and characterisation of alkaloids and other secondary metabolites, and who could determine the structures of previously unknown compounds that were isolated. The position advertised was ‘for work on alkaloids from Australian native plants and trees’. Jerry Price, was eminently qualified for the position; 16 of his 21 pre-1945 research publications were on the chemistry of plant extractives. He commenced duty on 24 September 1945.

Jerry’s initial scientific objectives were: to discover new sources of alkaloids already of value for medicinal purposes or as insecticides; to discover new alkaloids which may replace or supplement those already in use, and; to work out satisfactory methods of isolating and purifying the alkaloids found and to increase our systematic knowledge of the nature and chemistry of the alkaloids elaborated by plants. The project developed into the extraordinarily productive and co-operative Australian Phytochemical Survey.

By the time Jerry arrived in Melbourne in 1945, Len Webb’s screening tests (some on freshly collected leaves and bark and some on herbarium specimens) had already identified a large number of alkaloid-containing plants. In October 1945, one month after taking up his position in CSIR, Jerry joined Webb at Innisfail, North Queensland, to collect bulk quantities of leaf, bark and wood of several selected species of rainforest trees belonging to the plant family Rutaceae for extraction and detailed chemical examination.

The Australian Phytochemical Survey ran from 1946 until 1970. By the early 1950s they had skimmed the cream of rainforest drug sources, proving them 10 times richer than other native vegetations. Organic chemists identified the structure of 500 alkaloids of which 200 were new. Not many had immediate application, but the survey swelled a valuable pool of information for further use. Details can be found in Rainforests’ Australian’s green cathedrals and by following the link in the Sources below.

The 1960 IUPAC symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products in Australia

Of great significance for Jerry and for Australian phytochemistry was the decision of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) to hold a symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products in Australia in 1960. The invitation to IUPAC was made in 1958 by Dr ALG Rees, CSIRO Division of Industrial Chemistry, through the Australian Academy of Science. With Rees as Chairman of the Organising Committee, Jerry responsible for the scientific program and Sir Alexander (later Lord) Todd, Nobel Laureate, as President, the symposium was highly successful. Sessions were held successively in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. Many eminent organic chemists from overseas participated, but particularly significant for Jerry was the presence of Sir Robert Robinson, who had retired from the Wayneflete Chair of Chemistry at Oxford in 1955 but was still very actively involved in chemical research. This symposium put Australian chemistry, particularly the Phytochemical Survey, firmly on the international stage. Nine years later Jerry was Chairman of the Organising Committee for two IUPAC conferences that were held at the University of Sydney in August 1969. These conferences attracted considerable media interest. ALG Rees was at that time the President of IUPAC.

Chief of Division of Organic Chemistry

In 1960, Jerry was appointed Officer-in-Charge of the Organic Chemistry Section of the Division of Industrial Chemistry. His Chief Ian Wark wrote in support of his appointment:

It is unnecessary to advertise this position. Throughout the world it would be regarded as certain that Dr Price would be offered it, and there is no prospect whatever of finding anybody more suitable for it. The Executive is well aware of Dr Price’s standing as an organic chemist, of his ability as an administrator and of the originality he has brought to bear with respect to the work of his group in the Organic Chemistry Section. I have no hesitation in stating that he has the capacity to lead a larger group with distinction.

The Organic Chemistry Section was raised to Divisional status on 14 March 1961 with Jerry appointed as the first Chief. In his first Report as Chief, Jerry maintained that research in organic chemistry fell broadly into three categories: the investigation of natural products that provided much of the background information for the science, synthetic organic chemistry that was responsible for the tremendous output of the organic chemical industries, and physical organic chemistry. He stated that it was the first two of these that directly related to the utilisation of the country’s natural resources and to other national problems on which organic chemistry impinges, hence it was in those areas that emphasis was placed in planning the Division’s research. He indicated that much of the previous work in the Section had favoured natural products and that while this would continue he had initiated a reorientation that would broaden the synthetic activities of the Division. The principal feature of the new program was the investigation of organic compounds of the metals of which Australia has large reserves, particularly aluminium, gold, zirconium, tungsten and titanium, with the objective of finding new uses for these metals. A second project closely integrated with the study of organometallic compounds was the study of organophosphorus chemistry.

In the 1962-63 and 1963-64, reports Jerry reported on the expansion of the Phytochemical Survey and the stock poison work. He again noted the importance of collaboration and reported that the Division was working with the CSIRO Division of Animal Health, the Western Australian Department of Agriculture, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock, the Victorian Lands and Survey Department, Smith Kline and French Laboratories, the Cancer Chemotherapy National Service Centre, the US National Institutes of Health, the Population Council, the Queensland Department of Forests, the National Herbarium, the University of Sydney Department of Agricultural Microbiology, the University of Tasmania Department of Botany and Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand.

Chairman of CSIRO

Jerry was appointed as a member of the CSIRO Executive in January 1966 and was appointed Chairman of the CSIRO Executive in May 1970. His initial appointment was seen as the key step in Sir Frederick White‘s objective of better preparing CSIRO to meet the political and bureaucratic assaults which he predicted would come.

Jerry was largely responsible for the Executive becoming increasingly involved in what went on inside Divisions, especially in setting priorities and allocating resources at program level. This came about first by the adoption of program budgeting, and then through a greatly increased Executive involvement in detailed reviews of Divisions. His view was that CSIRO’s role should be distinct from that of the Universities and should not seem to look like, a place where research was done for its own sake. CSIRO required both quality of research and relevance.

It was a key change and enabled the Executive to be better informed, to allocate funds according to its priorities, and to be able to counter, in detail, the frequently raised canard that CSIRO was doing too much basic research. Program budgeting identified each activity with a relevant industrial and economic problem which, if it could not be solved by applying existing knowledge, was being tackled by ‘basic’ research to seek new information that could lead to a solution, as it so often successfully achieved.

The election of the Whitlam Government on 2 December 1972 was the start of the most turbulent time in Jerry’s career. An insight into just how much he was affected by some of the decisions of that government’s ministers can be found in a speech that he gave to Melbourne staff on 3 July 1975, three and a half weeks after the Government announced that the Mineral Research activities of CSIRO were to be transferred to the Department of Minerals and Energy.

In his speech Jerry outlined the background to these announcements. He reminded his audience of a press statement dated 11 September 1974 in which the two Ministers had agreed that CSIRO would pursue research in many areas that would bear on the utilisation of solar energy and that the Department of Minerals and Energy would take over the development phase of those CSIRO results that were approaching practical realisation. Jerry then gave a detailed account of developments after Thursday 5 June 1975 as follows:

Now to more recent developments. You probably all remember that on Thursday 5th June the Prime Minister issued a press statement outlining new Ministerial responsibilities. One sentence of his statement said, and I quote: “The Department of Minerals and Energy will take over responsibility for the Minerals Research Laboratories and the Solar Energy Studies Unit.

But let me reiterate my attitude, the attitude of the Executive and I believe the attitude of the Organization as a whole. This is that we object most strongly to the manner in which this decision was made and announced ‘without prior consultation with the former Minister for Science, Mr Morrison, his successor Mr Cameron, with the Organization, with the recently established ASTEC (the Australian Science and Technology Council) or with industry. We also object to the disregard of the practical requirements for conducting effective government-based scientific research in this country. We do not question the Government’s right to so order the affairs of CSIRO, that is its right, but such ordering should be brought about with the full understanding of all the factors involved and I believe we have preserved our credibility as responsible scientists and administrators by using every proper means to express our point of view to the Government. We have explained in very clear terms that the

Lady Price recalls that before Jerry went to give that speech he told her to expect that he would lose his job over his stand.

History records that the Government, already under pressure from adverse reactions to many of its decisions, and with the urging of the Acting Minister of Science and Consumer Affairs, Dr Moss Cass, finally rescinded the 5 July administrative orders. Jerry had thus very effectively preserved the integrity of CSIRO and enhanced his reputation both inside and outside the organisation.


Jerry retired from CSIRO on his 65th birthday, 24 March 1977. In retirement he served as a director of Humes for seven years, hoping that he could persuade the company to use Australian R&D to develop new technology rather than buying technology from overseas. While he did not succeed in that aim, he found working with business people intensely interesting and confided to Lady Price that he came across attitudes and processes that he had not experienced in his long career in public service science.

He was a member of the Monash University Council and on the Clunies Ross Foundation. In July 1986, Jerry was attending a meeting of the Clunies Ross Foundation at Clunies Ross House in Melbourne. He had parked his car on Royal Parade but was informed that a parking place had been reserved in the underground parking area at Clunies Ross House. Upon leaving the building via the back lane he was struck by a delivery truck. As a result of that accident Jerry suffered permanent lung damage and some brain damage. He withdrew from active public life after that. He died on 8 March 1999.

Honours and awards

Sir Robert Price was a great organiser and project developer with the ability to make wide and useful contacts with influential people in associated fields. He made a significant contribution to the growth and development of chemistry in Australia, and to the development of public sector research.

In 1990, the CSIRO Division of Chemicals and Polymers, in tribute to Jerry’s influence on organic chemistry in CSIRO, instituted a named lecture series The Sir Robert Price Lecturers, to be held every one or two years. These lectures bring industry, CSIRO and university scientists together in a way that Jerry approved. Other honours and awards include:


1959 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science


1977 Honorary Member, Royal Society of New South Wales
1976 Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE)
1969 Leighton Memorial Medal, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1956 HG Smith Memorial Medal, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1954 DSc from the University of Adelaide


1969 Member of the Science and Industry Forum
1969 Chairman, National Committee for Chemistry, Australian Academy of Science
1969 Chairman of Organising Committee, XXII Congress of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the XII International Conference on Coordination Chemistry, Sydney
1966 – 70 Chairman of the Publications Committee, Australian academy of Science
1965 – 70 Member, Editorial Board of Records of the Australian Academy of Science
1965 – 66 Chairman, Sectional Committee for Chemistry and Applied Chemistry, Australian Academy of Science
1962 – 68 Member, Sectional Committee for Chemistry and Applied Chemistry, Australian Academy of Science
1962 – 64 President, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1960 – 66 Member, National Committee for Chemistry, Australian Academy of Science
1959 – 60 President, Victorian Branch, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1956 – 58 Member of the Editorial Board and Editor of Reviews of Pure and Applied Chemistry
1954 – 55 Member of the Editorial Board and Editor, Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1949 – 53 Editor, Royal Australian Chemical Institute publications

Positions held

1970 – 77 Chairman, CSIRO
1966 – 70 Member, CSIRO Executive
1961 – 66 Chief, CSIRO Division of Organic Chemistry
1960 – 61 Officer-in-Charge, Organic Chemistry Section, CSIRO Division of Industrial Chemistry
1945 – 60 CSIRO Division of Industrial Chemistry
1939 – 45 Ministry of Supply
1937 – 39 Head, Chemistry, Section, John Innes Horticultural Institution; work on propellants and explosives

A full account of the life and achievements of Jerry Price can be found by following the link in the Sources below.