Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), chemist and museum director, was born on 4 August 1890 in Sydney. Due to family circumstances he started clerical work aged 14 and at 16 enrolled in evening classes in chemistry at Sydney Technical College. Stimulated by the lectures of H. G. Smith, economic chemist at the Technological Museum, Sydney, Penfold also began to investigate the chemistry of plant substances, especially volatile oils. In 1915 he became research chemist and assistant works manager to the eucalyptus oil distillers, Gillard Gordon Ltd. On 17 August he married Eunice Gilbert Gardner at St James’ Anglican Church.
In 1919 Penfold was appointed Smith’s assistant at the Technological Museum, and next year, on Smith’s retirement, economic chemist. The phytochemical work for which Penfold achieved world recognition was largely in the field of the volatile or the ‘essential’ oils of the Australian flora. He isolated and characterized many new chemical compounds which attracted overseas attention. As early as 1921 he demonstrated the molecular structure of piperitone, and how menthol and thymol could be synthesized from it. He also contributed to the understanding of chemical variation within plant species (his ‘physiological forms’). He published some hundred original research papers, many in collaboration with F. R. Morrison, mainly in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and with his botanical colleague J. L. Willis The Eucalypts: Botany, Chemistry, Cultivation and Utilization (London, 1961). He also substantially contributed to Ernest Guenther’s six-volume work, The Essential Oils (New York, 1948-52).
In 1927 Penfold was appointed curator and in 1948 director of the museum. He was an innovator in Australia in museum techniques: in the 1930s he introduced fluorescent illumination of displays and in 1950 he had the first planetarium in Australia set up.
Active in scientific societies, Penfold was a founder and first secretary (1913-48) of the Sydney Technical College Chemical Society, a council-member and president (1935) of the Royal Society, a member of the Standards Association of Australia and a founder and first secretary-treasurer of the Art Galleries and Museums Association of Australia and New Zealand in 1937-55.
During World War II Penfold was seconded to act as deputy director for New South Wales on the Commonwealth government’s Scientific Liaison Bureau. He was awarded the H. G. Smith memorial medal in 1934 by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1951, and in 1954 the Fritzsche award from the American Chemical Society.
Penfold retired from the museum in 1965 and worked for a period with Monsanto chemicals. He died on 16 June 1980 in Canberra.
Adapted from – H.H. G. Mckern Australian Dictionary of Biography