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Dr J.W. Mellor, c.1904. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, from Album 518, S13-215a.

Dr J.W. Mellor, c.1904. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, from Album 518, S13-215a.

Reading the newspaper story about recent law graduate Jason Ushaw inspired me to think about other Otago graduates who have overcome difficult odds. One from the university’s early years is among the most distinguished scientists to come out of Otago. Like Ushaw, Joseph Mellor came from an unprivileged background. Born in Yorkshire in 1869, he arrived in New Zealand with his parents at the age of ten years. His father Job Mellor, who worked at the Roslyn Woollen Mills, could not afford to send his six children to high school, so Joseph started in the boot trade when he was thirteen. He read and studied in his spare time, and when the Dunedin Technical Classes Association started evening classes in 1889 he finally had the chance to pursue secondary schooling. Three years later he matriculated, entitling him to enrol for a university degree.

Thanks to a co-operative employer and a scholarship, Joseph Mellor began part-time classes at the University of Otago in 1892, where he studied under the charismatic Professor of Chemistry, James Gow Black. Mellor completed a BSc in 1897, followed by an honours year. His brilliance then won him a prestigious 1851 Exhibition Scholarship, offered to about eight recipients from Britain and its empire each year. This would fund three years of overseas research. Before heading to Victoria University in Manchester to begin his research, Mellor taught for a while at Lincoln Agricultural College and married Emma Bakes, the Mornington Wesleyan Church organist.

After completing his doctorate in 1902, Mellor remained in England. While teaching in Staffordshire he became interested in the local pottery industry and became a noted expert in the science of ceramics. In the ‘spare time’ he squeezed out of days spent as director of a research institution Mellor completed the task for which he is best remembered today, writing a remarkable number of textbooks. His books covered a range of topics within chemistry and some, such as Modern Inorganic Chemistry (first published 1912, 8 editions) became standard undergraduate texts. His master work was the 12-volume Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry, published between 1922 and 1938. Not all of his writing was serious, though, for he also wrote amusing letters and drew cartoons for his nephews and nieces in New Zealand (Joseph and Emma had no children of their own).

Joseph Mellor, who died in London in 1938, obviously appreciated the education and opportunities he had received back in Dunedin. Emma Mellor, who visited Otago in 1950, gifted books and archives, including cartoons, from his collection to the university (it is now part of the University of Otago Library Special Collections). She also made a very generous bequest to the university of the royalties on Joseph Mellor’s books. This become the Mellor fund, administered by the Professor of Chemistry for the benefit of research in pure chemistry. Joseph and Emma Mellor are remembered today by a prize for the leading student of 400-level chemistry.

The charming photograph of Joseph Mellor teaching comes from an album which belonged to his father, Job Mellor. I’m told by those who know better than me that the first line of calculus written on the board is the Van der Waals equation.

Do you have any plans to write a bestseller? If so, you might like to remember Otago when you decide what to do with the proceeds! And if you feel that your road to academic success is a rocky one, you might be inspired by what one biographer wrote about Mellor’s many achievements: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mellor’s determination to undertake such heavy tasks must have been fortified through mastering the adversity of earlier years.”