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James Francis Duncan

by J. H. Johnston PhD, FRSNZ, FNZIC


JAMES DUNCAN was born in 1921 in Liverpool on St James' day, and died on 25 January, 2001. He attended Liverpool Collegiate School where he won many prizes and was Head Prefect and Dux. During this time he extended his love and formal learning of chemistry by carrying out experiments in the family home. This practice was continued with increasing enthusiasm by James until one day an experiment which generated large quantities of hydrogen gas caused an explosion. In the interests of family safety and preserving the family home, James' escapades were banned by his concerned parents. He was awarded a Scholarship to Jesus College Oxford in 1939 where he studied chemistry and gained his MA and DPhil degrees. He was also passionate about music, sang in the church choir with his father, captained the College hockey team and belonged to the debating society. James met Margaret (Peggy), a medical student at Oxford and his life-long wife to be in 1942.

During his postgraduate studies, the second World War broke out and James was seconded to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, Berkshire, to work with the research team on the "tube alloy" project which was an integral part of  the  then  top secret  atomic bomb  programme. He  had  to carry his  briefcase


James F. Duncan OBE


James F. Duncan OBE

locked  to his wrist and hid it behind clothes in a wardrobe before he and Margaret went out on a date.

After hostilities ceased, James married Margaret, completed his DPhil and continued to work at Harwell on projects relating to the peaceful use of atomic energy and radiochemistry. James and Margaret travelled widely through Wales, Ireland, France and Switzerland.

James had a strong desire to promulgate science and to work with young people, and hence joined the Chemistry Department, Melbourne University in 1953 as a Reader in Radiochemistry. This marked the beginning of a distinguished academic career in which, amongst other things, he contributed significantly to the development and understanding of radiochemistry. As a co-author he published his first book "Modern radiochemical practice" and later authored a second book "Isotopes in chemistry" which was a standard text for many university radiochemistry courses.

He toured and lectured widely on radiochemistry, visiting Victoria University of Wellington in 1961. As a consequence he applied for and was appointed to the newly established Chair of Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry at Victoria in 1962, which he held until he retired in 1986. He was Head of the former Chemistry Department from 1968 to 1980.

James had a very keen, active and enquiring mind and was an inspirational, patient and effective teacher. He was also an equally inspirational and innovative researcher, and led and supervised a strong research group of MSc and PhD students in a wide range of fundamental and applied research programmes. Much of the research necessitated designing and building equipment for the task at hand as well as carrying out the experimental programme and interpreting the results as best as the data allowed. Accordingly, his students received a valuable research education as the science itself was supplemented by innovation, inventiveness and stickability. Many of his students now hold senior positions in science-based public and private sector organisations within New Zealand and internationally. Through his research and teaching he contributed significantly to the national and international knowledge base of chemistry, radiochemistry and materials science.

In 1964 he was quick to develop and progress an active research programme in the Moessbauer Effect or nuclear gamma ray resonance spectroscopy, recently discovered by Nobel Laureate Rudolph Moessbauer. James and his research group made a leading contribution to Moessbauer Spectroscopy over many years. They measured and published Fe-57 Moessbauer spectra and parameters for numerous iron-containing compounds and minerals, and used the data to develop an enhanced understanding of the structure and chemistry of these materials. He extended his research to solid state chemistry where he and his group contributed significantly to understanding the chemistry, structures and reactions of clay-based ceramics, minerals, fertilisers, New Zealand ironsands and indeed of teeth and tooth decay. He was proactive in establishing research collaborations with the then DSIR and Industry. Many of his students enjoyed and benefited from the opportunity to work in such collaborative programmes. These collaborations are continued in a similar form today and are led by his postgraduate students. There is no doubt that James' pioneering work and influence in solid state chemistry and materials science in New Zealand has provided a cornerstone for the current collaborations and internationally recognised materials science research in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Victoria University, and Industrial Research Ltd.

He recognised the potential of stimulating and extending the enquiring scientific minds of secondary school students and in 1964 organised the first Wellington Secondary Schools Science Fair. This has grown progressively over the years to a prestigious event, held annually in all the main centres with a National Final, under the auspices of the Royal Society of New Zealand and sponsored by New Zealand corporates. Today, in the Wellington area alone, some 350 students each year exhibit their science fair projects. James chaired the Wellington Region Science Fair Committee for many years and also the National Science Fair Board. He then became Patron of the National Science Fair as it evolved from his enterprise to the responsibility of the Royal Society of New Zealand. The New Zealand wide Science Fairs have indeed done much to enhance student interest and public awareness of the importance of science and technology.

James was very forward thinking and encouraged senior public and private sector persons to identify, consider and debate future issues likely to be of major significance to New Zealand and its people. He was a foundation member of the National Development Council of New Zealand from 1969 to 1974 and in 1975 he persuaded Government to establish the Commission for the Future, which he was then asked to Chair. The Commission advised Government on the longer-term effects of policies and likely development scenarios for New Zealand. It produced a number of far-sighted reports, one of which concluded that the then policies of the Muldoon Government would likely lead to higher unemployment and a widening income gap and social problems. The Government apparently viewed such a prediction dimly and disbanded the Commission in 1982. Interestingly, this prediction and a number of other outcomes predicted by the Commission appear to have rung remarkably true. Still believing strongly in the need for this type of forward thinking, James then established the New Zealand Futures Trust, a charitable organisation which continues today in promoting the difficult quest of getting people to think more about the long-term effects of current and proposed policies and developments. In 1984, James authored a book of "Options for New Zealand's Future" which presented much of these arguments and conclusions. Even with his deteriorating physical health James continued to write and contribute to science and society by e-communications from his farm in Mahau Sound.

James' contribution to science has been recognised by his DSc from Oxford University, and Fellowships of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry. His OBE recognises the wider contributions he has made to science.


Copyright J. H. Johnston PhD, FRSNZ, FNZIC . All rights reserved. The Royal Society of New Zealand


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