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May 2018

‘Tort’ Jamieson

David Collins and I wrote the biographical memoir of Professor John Swan (1924–2015) for the Australian Academy of Science and it was published in Historical Records of Australian Science, 2017, vol. 28(1), pp. 58–65. Most chemists never see this journal, so if you are interested in this commemoration of the life and work of one of Australia’s leading chemists, let us know and we will provide an electronic copy.

Like many successful people, John mentioned that his career choice had been influenced by a teacher, in this case his chemistry teacher at Scotch College, Melbourne, one William Rotherham Jamieson (1871–1953), who taught at Scotch for 40 years before retiring in 1948. Jamieson had studied at the University College of Aberystwyth and University College Bristol before graduating BSc from the University of London in 1892 with honours in mathematics and physics. Migrating soon after, he taught at Queen’s School in North Adelaide and then at Roseworthy Agricultural College before coming to Scotch in 1908.

Swan recalled that Jamieson was always called – but not necessarily to his face – ‘Tort’, probably a reference to one of his tools of trade, the retort. A history of the school suggests that Jamieson’s profile, featuring a large nose and prominent Adam’s apple, reminded students of that glassware.

In 1917 Jamieson’s book Australasian text book of chemistry. Part 1 was published locally. In his preface, Jamieson wrote that it was the first part of a complete course of chemistry for schools, covering a ‘two-year’s course for boys (and girls, too, for that matter) from the age of 14 to that of 16’. Atomic theory was not included, but deferred for inclusion in part 2, because Jamieson felt that it was impossible for a boy to grasp it adequately until he had mastered the material in part 1. When I got a copy out of the library, it seemed strangely familiar, and I realised that I had a copy of it, a copy so battered that the title page had been lost and so I was unaware of the author’s name.

Jamieson thanked his wife for reading the proof-sheets and making helpful suggestions, so I wondered if she might have been educated in chemistry, too. She also contributing the drawings (there were lots), and he wrote that ‘it was only after I had commenced to write this book that I realized her assistance in this direction to be indispensable for its satisfactory completion’.

In 1926, Jamieson published a different kind of book entitled Elementary physical science, in which he began his preface with ‘There is a strong body of opinion holding that the science courses of secondary schools are unduly specialized, and that breadth of culture is sacrificed to an intensive treatment that is out of place in the earlier stages, at least, of a boy’s education’.  A.C.D. Rivett, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne, had read the text in proof and he provided an introduction in which he expressed broad agreement with Jamieson’s views. Jamieson thanks a number of people from industry for helping with the text and illustrations, but perhaps most significantly credits ‘most of all’ a former pupil of his, C.W. Ross, who assisted with the compilation of the text to the extent that ‘whatever merit the book possesses is due in large measure to him’. Ross graduated in medicine and made his career in the Australian Army Medical Corps.

Jamieson wrote several other school chemistry texts, starting in the 1920s with several versions of junior and senior courses and culminating in 1941 with Revision chemistry for schools. It was quite short and contained no equations or diagrams. It concentrated on the language of chemistry and Jamieson wrote that it was intended ‘to help students integrate their work, as so many of them fail to see the wood for the trees’. 

When he retired in 1948, Jamieson’s students composed a tribute for him that found its way into the school history. Probably sung to an unidentified tune, it contains hints of the lecture room (where Tort was known for his Latin aphorisms) and the laboratory:


In the dry way, in the wet way,
Testing for an unknown salt,
A priori, fortiori
In the customary way.



Test for chloride, test for nitrate, Test for sulphate, arsenate,

’Tisn’t sulphide or hydroxide –

Would it not make one irate!


Sublimation, condensation

Avogadro, Berthollet,

Saturation, titration

Dalton and Lavoisier




Oxidation, levigation

Is it arsenic or lime?

Perspiration, resignation,

Try again another time!


At the 1907 Congress of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Adelaide, Jamieson gave a talk about educational methods in the teaching of mathematics and science. Rosemary Polya’s comment, in her 1986 review of science textbooks, noted that the advanced ideas he expressed in Adelaide were like those of modern educationalists. However, she described his chemistry textbooks as ‘virtually recipe books’ but did acknowledge that he had always stressed the need for teaching because the textbook alone was not sufficient.

Ian D. Rae FRACI CChem ( is a veteran columnist, having begun his Letters in 1984. When he is not compiling columns, he writes on the history of chemistry and provides advice on chemical hazards and pollution.

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