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September–November 2023

The Jackman era

Although Lloyd Jackman was professor of organic chemistry at the University of Melbourne for a relatively short time (1962–7), he had a profound impact on the department and especially on the students who were pursuing research degrees in organic chemistry. Jackman completed his PhD at the University of Adelaide in 1951 and undertook postdoctoral work in England that led to his appointment as reader at Imperial College London in 1953. At the time of his appointment to the Melbourne chair, he was on leave as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa.

In support of Jackman, author of a well-known book on applications of nuclear magnetic resonance in organic chemistry, the Melbourne department acquired its first NMR spectrometer and a mass spectrometer, icons of the new methods being adopted by chemists. The research topics tackled by his students were also from a new era, and he collaborated with staff in biology departments on problems of biosynthesis and drug development. Problem-solving sessions introduced by Jackman brought all the organic chemists together, challenging students to work out the structures of natural products for which spectroscopic and other data was provided. The outcomes were the broadening of their chemical knowledge and a strong sense of camaraderie that has survived over the years. Students seeking overseas postdoctoral appointments often asked for Jackman’s advice, and found places in America rather than going to Britain as their predecessors had done. Some returned, but unlike their British-oriented predecessors, a few of them stayed in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

When Jackman moved to Pennsylvania State University in 1967, some of his students remained in Melbourne to complete their degrees; some nearing completion went to Penn State to write the theses that earned them a Melbourne PhD; while others who were partway through their degrees were able to transfer their enrolment to Penn State and so earned their PhD degrees there.

From time to time the Jackmans, Lloyd and Marie, travelled to Australia to visit relatives, and it was on such a visit in 1998 that Dan Whelan spotted them dining in a restaurant and introduced himself as a student of what we now think of as ‘the Jackman era’ (although Dan’s PhD work was supervised by another member of staff). The idea for a reunion meal was born there, and a few days later a dozen or so couples met for dinner with the Jackmans at a local pub, to reminisce about their time at the University of Melbourne in the glorious sixties.

From its beginning, the group grew to include other Melbourne students – mostly organikers – and some members of staff, so over the next two decades some 30–40 chemists along with partners sat down to lunch or dinner every year. Lloyd was present at several of these functions and from time to time so were other overseas-based members for whom the time of a family visit coincided with the reunion date. Others who are unable to attend because of distance often write to greet the others and to reflect on the way their careers developed as they became part of the post-Jackman diaspora.

Mark Scott, for example, who has made his career in England, wrote this year:

From Penn State I went to a postdoctoral position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, and then to Shell’s Woodstock Research Centre in Sittingbourne, Kent, England. In crop protection I had been working on a rodenticide project when I had an incredible stroke of luck. I was asked by one of the directors to improve the performance of a wild oat herbicide called Flamprop isopropyl (see structure below). Wild oats are taller than wheat and barley and they suppress crop yields. They drop their seeds early, resulting in increasing contamination in future yields, and much poorer bread, malting barley for beer, and so on. It was pure luck that I was able to use a single chiral form of the herbicide to kill the wild oats. The synthesis started with naturally occurring S-(+)-lactic acid, but the herbicide that I made from it required the opposite chiral form, and had to be folded inside out. If the same chiral form had been needed, it would never have been possible to achieve adequate purity. The improved wild oat herbicide was actually cheaper to make than the original racemic one and made billions of dollars for Shell, at least five times that for farmers, and then there’s the supply chain of wholesalers, advertisers who also profited. Those of you in ‘the lucky country’ (Australia, of course) won’t know of the products because they are relatively ineffective in thinner, lower-yielding crops as are the norm in the expansive areas of Australia. But in any case they’re now a thing of the past, Shell having changed its view from considering crop protection as being good, to it being bad, for its image. And today soil conserving, low-tillage, low-treatment techniques have become common, and probably will become the norm soon. At the time, though, my luck continued and I was able to participate in every stage apart from marketing – R&D, synthesis of field samples and, for four years, process development and manufacturing in Holland.

After a recess in the COVID years, the group, now depleted by the loss of several members, convened again earlier this year with Peter Gordon succeeding Dan Whelan in the coordinator role. Its existence is a remarkable outcome of Lloyd Jackman’s time at the University of Melbourne and the spirit it engendered in students, not only those who worked directly with him but for all of those in the vicinity of the young professor.

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 is an editor of Historical Records of Australian Science.

Flamprop isopropyl

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