Our history

Named in 2009, the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences has existed under many guises over the years.

It was previously known as the School of Molecular & Microbial Sciences, which was formed in 2000 after a merger between the then departments of Chemistry, Biochemistry, Microbiology and Parasitology. Chemistry was one of the University's foundation departments and its history dates to 1911. Other departments formed after World War II.

If you would like to know more about our history email Mark Starkey, our School Manager, at scmb.schoolmanager@uq.edu.au.

1910 to 1938: The early years

  • Bertram Dillon Steele
    Professor Bertram Dillon Steele.
    Chemistry classes started at UQ in 1911, a year after the University's foundation. Professor of Chemistry, Bertram Dillon Steele, was one of UQ’s four inaugural professors, and the first chemistry building with purpose-built student laboratories opened in 1912. 
  • Early courses were in physical, organic and inorganic chemistry, and later in applied chemistry. Professor Steele's research was in the general area of synthetic and physical inorganic chemistry.
  • By the 1930s, when the Great Depression was biting, the academic staff had grown to only five, including John Hines, UQ’s first biochemistry academic, and Thomas Gilbert Henry Jones, whose focus was the extraction of natural products from native plants.

Source: 'The History and Development of the Faculty of Agriculture' by L. J. Hartley Teakle

1939 to 1959: World War II and post-war growth

THG Jones at a desk
T. G. H. Jones, 1965. Photo: UQ Archives
  • Student and staff numbers grew in the 1930s but World War II halted growth in both, as well as work on a new building, which had started in 1938.
  • The introductory, year-long Chemistry I course was compulsory for all UQ science students, including those from the then faculties of Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science & Agriculture, and Engineering. The course comprised three lectures and three hours of practical work each week, and weekly workloads for third-year Chemistry students increased to four lectures and 24 hours of practical classes.
  • Student numbers rose as service men and women returned from military service, and the Steele Building was opened at St Lucia in 1949.

Sources: 'A Place of Light and Learning: The University of Queensland's First Seventy-Five Years' by Malcolm I. Thomis; 'History of the Department of Microbiology' by V. B. D. Skerman

1960 to 1975: Expansion

The Biochemistry Building
The Biochemistry Building, circa 1961.

Chemistry

  • By the mid-1960s, the Chemistry lecturing staff had grown to 23 members who were teaching into three strands of physical, organic and inorganic chemistry.
  • In 1964, the UQ Chemical Society was formed to provide a forum for scientific discussion and chemistry promotion at UQ.
  • The Department began investing in equipment, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and electron spin spectrometers and an electron microscope. 
  • The current Chemistry Building was constructed in two stages 1971-73.

Biochemistry

  • The Department of Biochemistry at UQ was established in 1961, with Edwin Webb appointed as Foundation Professor of Biochemistry and Head.
  • Successive professorial appointments established or consolidated various sub-disciplines within biochemistry, notably enzymology, medical biochemistry, plant biochemistry and molecular biology.

Microbiology

  • In 1962, Dr V. D. B. Skerman was appointed as Foundation Professor and Head. He led the department’s expansion both in terms of size and into non-medical areas of microbiology.
  • By the 1980s, the department had established strong research programs in all major areas of the discipline and, in addition to science, taught into degree programs offered in medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, agricultural science and engineering.

Parasitology

  • An independent and autonomous Department of Parasitology was formed in 1960, with Professor John Sprent as Head. 
  • Over the next 30 years, the Department grew as a strong, separate discipline with recognised strengths in medical, marine and veterinary parasitology.

Sources: 'A Place of Light and Learning: The University of Queensland's First Seventy-Five Years' by Malcolm I. Thomis; 'A History of the Department of Microbiology' by V. B. D. Skerman

1976 to 1999: Consolidation and diversification

postgraduates pose for a photo
The postgraduate class of 1987.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, Chemistry was characterised by much stability in its three sections, and in the early 1990s a united approach emerged under Head Dr John Hall and then Associate Professor John Cotton.
  • Microbiology’s class of 1985 included 180 honours, 50 master's and 47 PhD graduates, and industrial microbiology began to morph into what is now known as biotechnology.
  • Biochemistry expanded to include molecular biology, with John Mattick appointed as the first Professor of Molecular Biology in 1988. Together with Microbiology, his department supported the foundation of the Centre for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (now the Institute for Molecular Bioscience) and the expansion of the biotechnology program, which covered biological chemistry through to molecular cell biology. 
  • The Molecular Biosciences Building was completed in two stages between 1991 and 1993.
  • The Microbiology and Parasitology departments merged in 1998.

Sources: 'A Brief History of the Chemistry Department of the University of Queensland 1910–1985' by Barry Chiswell; 'A History of the Department of Microbiology' by V. B. D. Skerman

2000 to today: Commercialisation and global excellence

chemistry building
The Chemistry Building today.
  • In 2000 degree programs in Biotechnology were introduced.
  • In 2001, the departments of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Microbiology & Parasitology merged to form the School of Molecular & Microbial Sciences. In 2009, our name changed to the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences.
  • Staged refurbishment of the Chemistry Building's interior and exterior started in 2003, with several projects winning architectural awards. Further major refurbishments were completed in 2015.
  • In the past decade, the School has witnessed the creation of UQ research institutes such as the QBI, AIBN, IMB, QAAFI and the Diamantina Institute, and we continue to contribute expertise to these institutes through strategic alliances. 
  • Numbers and sophistication of instrumentation, including mass spectrometry, NMR and proteomics, have steadily increased over the past 20 years, as have those of our commercialisation ventures, including patents, commercialised intellectual property and spin-off companies.
  • With an increased focus on Teaching & Learning and industry engagement, the School has participated in a restructure of the Bachelor of Science degree, taken ownership of UQ’s Biotechnology programs, introduced postgraduate coursework programs in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics expanded support for first-year students, and cemented relations with industry and the professions. 
  • Our cross-disciplinary approach and international outlook have contributed to outstanding research successes, and our academics continue to achieve competitive numbers of prestigious research fellowships.
  • Today, we focus on transforming our students into game-changing graduates through initiatives such as work-integrated learning, undergraduate research experiences, volunteering, and global experiences that build on a robust, ever-developing curriculum.