Obituary: Professor Stephen Angyal - a chemistry legend

2009: Helga and Stephen Angyal ( | 1964: Stephen Angyal receives the first DSc awarded by UNSW
Thursday, 24 May, 2012
Bob Beale

The Faculty of Science records with sadness and regret the recent death of Professor Stephen Angyal, a distinguished former Dean and outstanding figure in Australian chemistry. Professor Angyal was 97.

Although he formally retired from UNSW in 1979, he continued working with us for another two decades, maintaining a laboratory until the School of Chemistry moved to a new building a few years ago.

As the present head of the School of Chemistry, Professor Barbara Messerle recalls, Professor Angyal was 90 when he published the last of his more than 200 research papers: “It was a sole-author paper, and relied on experimental work he had done. He continued to ski until he was 92.”

Stephen Angyal was born in Budapest, Hungary, on 21 November 1914. His father, Dr Charles Engel, was a medical practitioner (Stephen later changed his surname to Angyal, due to anti-German sentiment in Hungary at the time). His father introduced him to literature and music as well as science.

He studied science at the Royal Hungarian University of Science and completed a PhD in carbohydrate chemistry at the University for Technology and Engineering, in Budapest.

With war escalating in Europe, he left Hungary and sailed for Australia from Milan on the Viminale, the last Italian ship to reach Australia before Italy entered the war. He arrived in Sydney in March, 1940.

Unable to find work, he teamed up with another chemist, Dr Andrew Ungar, to establish their own company, producing chemical products from a laboratory they put together in a disused garage. The company, Andrew’s Laboratories, was successful and ultimately acquired by Johnson and Johnson.

He moved to Melbourne in 1941 to join Nicholas Pty Ltd, makers of Aspro, as a research chemist and met Helga Steininger, whom he married in 1942. The company was involved in producing essential wartime supplies for Australian troops in New Guinea.

Returning to Sydney in 1946, he took up a post at the University of Sydney as a chemistry lecturer, despite having given only one public lecture in English. Here he taught and began his research into inositols – a family of simple carbohydrates.

In 1950, he gave an address to the Sydney Chemical Society and in the audience was Alexander Todd, then a visiting professor at Sydney University.

Todd was impressed and invited Angyal to spend his study leave in Todd’s laboratory at Cambridge University. Todd later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1957. Another researcher in the lab at the time, Har Gobind Khorana, also won a Nobel in 1968.

In early 1953, Angyal joined the fledgling NSW University of Technology (now UNSW) as an associate professor of organic chemistry.

“Their School of Chemistry was taken over from the Sydney Technical College and I knew it well,” Angyal recalled in a memoir. “It was built up by the energetic Dr R. K. Murphy, who recruited good people. Chemistry was at university level even then and it was probably the strongest element of the new university. Amongst the first professors appointed were those of chemistry, chemical engineering and metallurgy; the institution was sometimes facetiously referred to as ‘University of Chemistry’.

In 1960 he was appointed to a new Chair as Professor of Organic Chemistry. Helga Angyal became involved in university affairs as well through her fund-raising activities as a founding member of the U Committee (in 1999, the university's 50th anniversary, Helga was awarded the Jubilee Medallion “for dedicated service well beyond any norm and a truly major contribution to the work and life of the University”).

Stephen Angyal was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1962 and received the first Doctorate of Science (DSc) awarded by UNSW in 1964. From 1970 to 1979, he served as Dean of the Faculty of Science.

In 1977 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

He travelled widely to conferences and spent further periods working at the University of California at Berkeley, the Natural Products Institute at Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris, and the University of Grenoble, Oxford University, Imperial College London, and the ETH in Zürich.  

He is credited with making a major contribution to Australian chemistry, not only through his research but in attracting leading chemists to travel to Australia to lecture and take part in conferences.

He was a keen swimmer and skier, and had a wide range of cultural interests, especially music.  He was a staunch admirer and supporter of the Australia Ensemble (resident at UNSW) since its formation in 1980. The Ensemble dedicated a performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio to his memory.  

During the International Year of Chemistry last year, Chemistry in Australia, published by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, named him as one of the “living luminaries of Australian chemistry”.

In an interview at the time, he said his greatest achievement was “to put the chemistry of carbohydrates on a firm ground”.

Asked to choose a famous historical figure to dine with, he said: W. Somerset Maugham. In my young days I read most of his books and learnt much of my English from him."

Asked what advice he would offer to chemistry professionals just starting out, he said: "There are many ways to use your knowledge. Good chemists are wanted in education and industry; for legal advice and for research. Look before you decide."

The present Dean of the Faculty of Science, Professor Merlin Crossley, this week paid tribute to Professor Angyal: “Stephen was one of the giants of the age when new scientific universities like UNSW were established. He set the foundations of excellence and continued to support the School of Chemistry and university long after his formal retirement. We are very fortunate to have had people of his calibre as role models and supporters.”

An extended interview with Professor Angyal can be found here on the Australian Academy of Science website.


* Thanks to David Black, who assisted in compiling this report, most of which is extracted from Stephen Angyal's own memoir.

Media contact:
Bob Beale UNSW Faculty of Science 0411 705 435