Story: Page, Robert Owen

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Page, Robert Owen

1897–1957

Pacifist, industrial chemist

This biography was written by Brian R. Davis and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Robert Owen Page was born in Christchurch on 23 November 1897, the son of Sarah Saunders and her husband, Samuel Page. His father was a demonstrator in chemistry at Canterbury College and his mother was a well-known feminist and social reformer. Robert, known as Robin to his friends, was educated at Christchurch Boys’ High School between 1911 and 1914. On winning a university Junior Scholarship he went to Canterbury College, where in 1917 he completed a BSc, majoring in chemistry. His results gained him the Sir George Grey Scholarship, a Senior Scholarship and the Haydon Prize.

At the end of 1917 Page became liable for military service, but, strongly influenced by his parents’ Quaker views, he refused to be conscripted. He was arrested on 11 April 1918 and sentenced at a Wellington court martial to two years’ imprisonment. On the day before his arrest, the college’s professorial board had refused him permission to attend lectures and, despite an appeal by the students’ association, had insisted on posting his name on the college notice board. He was released on 30 August 1919, having served most of his sentence at Paparua prison, near Christchurch. Page returned to his studies in 1920, gaining an MSc with first-class honours in chemistry; his thesis was on a topic in inorganic chemistry. Page then joined the staff of Woolston Tanneries as a chemist. In 1924 he became works manager, a position he held until a few weeks before his death.

Page would establish an international reputation for helping develop tanning into a scientific process; particularly notable was his work on vegetable tannage. In a series of careful studies he examined the influence of a range of factors, such as added chemicals and acidity, on the tanning process. He travelled to the United States in 1924 to study tanning; his work, and that done with his brother A. W. Page and with H. C. Holland, was published in international journals between 1927 and 1952. He received a DSc from the University of New Zealand in 1934, an unusual award for an industrial chemist. In 1949 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in recognition of contributions to chemistry, the first chemist to receive this honour while holding an industrial appointment.

Page was deeply interested in promoting the teaching of chemistry, particularly applied chemistry. He was a member of the board of governors of Christchurch Girls’ High School, and he helped bridge the gap between pure and applied aspects of chemistry by working with the Canterbury Science Teachers’ Association and in promoting refresher lectures for industrial chemists. He took a full part in the activities of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, chairing the Canterbury branch in 1932 and 1933 and becoming national president in 1944; he was also president of the New Zealand section of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1941, and a fellow of both institutes. In 1944 he was president of the Canterbury branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand. His informed views on the scientific relationship between New Zealand’s primary and secondary industries led to his appointment to the council of the DSIR, a position he held from 1937 to 1954. He was also a member of the Cawthron Institute Trust Board, the committee of the Wheat Research Institute, and the Leather and Shoe Research Association Committee.

On 21 December 1934 Page married Nancy Grace Glen in Christchurch; there were two children of the marriage, a daughter and a son. Nancy had trained as a primary school teacher and was later active in the playcentre movement. From his earliest years Robert was interested in outdoor activities: tramping, skiing and gardening, with tennis a favourite sport. In 1921 he was a Canterbury three-mile and cross-country champion. He had a lifelong association with a family hut at Arthur’s Pass, a scene of many holidays and an area that featured in Robert and Nancy’s collection of New Zealand landscape paintings.

Robert Page was widely respected for his sincerity, his warmth and his high moral principles. A diagnosis of colonic cancer in 1955 was borne with fortitude; one of the few concessions he made to increasing weakness over the next two years was to use a car instead of his bicycle to get to work. He died in Christchurch on 14 July 1957, survived by his wife and children. Unlike most distinguished scientists of the time, he made an internationally recognised contribution to his discipline while maintaining an active role as manager of an industrial enterprise.