Page 1: Biography
Robertson, Philip Wilfred
Chemist, university professor, writer
This biography, written by Brian R. Davis, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Philip Wilfred Robertson was born in Ponsonby, Auckland, on 22 September 1884, the son of Edith Martin and her husband, Donald Robertson, a postal clerk who was to become public service commissioner. He was educated at Wellington College, where he was dux in 1900, and at Victoria College (later Victoria University College). After an outstanding academic career he graduated MA with first-class honours in chemistry in 1905 and MSc in 1906. As the leading student in his class he gained a Sir George Grey Scholarship, a Senior Scholarship and the Jacob Joseph Scholarship. While at Victoria College he published eight scientific papers, one with Professor Thomas Easterfield but the others on his own, an outstanding feat for a student. These achievements, combined with his prowess at hockey and tennis, secured for him Victoria College's first Rhodes Scholarship. He then gained first-class honours in natural sciences at Trinity College, Oxford, and a PhD at Leipzig University, where he studied under Professor A. R. Hantzsch.
Robertson became professor of chemistry at Rangoon College, Burma, in 1909, and was appointed lecturer at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, in 1911. He married Florence Elizabeth Graham in 1912. The couple were to have one daughter, Monica. He returned to New Zealand to take up the chair of chemistry at his old university in 1920, vacated when Easterfield left to become director of the Cawthron Institute. Robertson was to head the department for 30 years, for over 20 of which he was responsible for teaching the whole of organic and physical chemistry.
As a teacher he took pains to present clear and accurate, if highly condensed, lectures. With D. H. Burleigh he wrote a textbook, Qualitative analysis in theory and practice, which was in use from 1920 until his retirement. He supervised over 100 theses, mostly for MSc, and was fondly remembered by his many research students. He was tall and thin, immaculate in appearance, with a whimsical sense of humour and a modest and gracious manner. His time in Burma had affected his health so that he felt the need for warmth both in his surroundings and in his clothing, and rarely went out in the evening.
Robertson carried out research in analytical chemistry, developing and describing a method for the quantitative determination of various elements in carbon compounds. However, his main contribution to research was undoubtedly in the area now known as physical organic chemistry. In his student days he had shown an interest in the relationships between the molecular structure and chemical properties of a range of compounds. This was developed in his contact with Hantzsch and led to a series of studies on the mechanism of reactions of carbon (organic) compounds.
He was unusual among chemistry professors in New Zealand for his deep interest in literature and writing. Robertson believed that science should inform art, and art science: both were aspects of the whole. His first collection of short stories, A soul's progress: mezzotints in prose (1920), represented five periods in the history of the soul of an imaginary young scientist trying to escape a narrow intellectual view of the world; the settings included Renaissance Italy, seventeenth century Danzig, Burma, pre-Christian Egypt and eighth century China. This theme was continued in Life and beauty (1931), a spiritual autobiography which described a deep and sensitive thinker engaged in a quest for beauty. Other short stories included 'Tarawera in eruption' (1944) and 'Odyssey in Wellington Harbour' (1945). Both appeared in New Zealand New Writing and the latter, particularly, received critical acclaim. His interest in the visual arts was expressed in an article in Art in New Zealand in 1931 on Christopher Perkins, illustrated by the latter's portrait of the author.
After his retirement from Victoria University College in 1949 Robertson was appointed professor emeritus. He had been awarded the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1919 and was elected to the fellowship by the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1950. Having separated from his wife, he eventually settled in England, where he lived until his death in London on 7 May 1969.
Robertson was one of the few New Zealand chemists of his generation who established a lasting international reputation for scientific work. He achieved this with minimal equipment and funding and with the research assistance of MSc students. His enduring contributions as a scholar have not yet been sufficiently recognised in the country of his birth.