Science possibly saved my life – 100th Birthday of RACI Fellow John Edward O’Hagan


Written by Matheus Carpinelli de Jesus, Alexandra L. Mutch and Luke Churchman

Published 10 December 2020 

On November 11th, RACI QLD's Dr. John Edward O'Hagan celebrated his 100th birthday. The Early Career Chemists Group (ECC) was fortunate enough to sit down with John for a short time to discuss his life and work, and perhaps gather some valuable wisdom along the way.

On a humid Monday morning John welcomed the ECC members into his home. Sprinkled across the walls were historical maps of early Australia and other lands, a reminder of the time John spent working in the survey office and later in military surveillance. Below these were shelves overflowing with books on topics from skilled trade to quantum mechanics. John has always had his hands full and his mind occupied, such as when he attended a night course in chemistry and geology during his military training, to get a job at the Government Chemistry Laboratory.

Due to John’s earlier experience in surveying, he was the only one to ace a military training course in which he was tasked with plotting a course as he went, using a compass and a book. This caught the attention of his superiors, getting him moved to the headquarters with the intelligence unit. Australia had lost many weapons and men in the “fall of Singapore” [Feb 1942], and the only weapons available were WWI rifles, too old to be used, so soldiers were instructed to use Molotov cocktails instead. John was concerned about the practicality of these weapons, and so went about designing a self-igniting Molotov cocktail with his knowledge of chemistry. Wanting to expand his technical knowledge further, John signed up to a course on radar technology in Sydney.  While he was there, his Townsville battalion was dispatched to New Guinea and many of his group unfortunately did not return.

John reflects on his decision saying:

“Science possibly saved my life”

When the Second World War came to an end, John was the first in his unit to be discharged in April 1945 to pursue a BSc at UQ. John then completed his Masters in physiology with merit and publications on his research into aetiomesohaemoglobin. This was the start of a career in science that took him around the world including working at the University of Pennsylvania and Cambridge. John was also fortunate to meet Nobel Laureates such as Linus Pauling (Chemistry 1954; Peace 1962), John Vane (Medicine 1982) and Peter Doherty (Medicine 1996) at the many international conferences he attended. He puts these encounters down to his eagerness to meet and engage with others, and a little bit of good timing. 

John continued to expand his research to include haemoglobin, cattle ticks and human serum bilirubin, with over 30 publications from 1949 to 1977. John’s pride in his research is palpable with discussions of his work often featuring some show-and-tell such as his homemade ping pong ball-derived model of a haem unit.

Resourcefulness is a great trait in a scientist, and can be particularly powerful alongside a drive to investigate, both of which John has in spades. While working at PA hospital John changed the way patients’ pathology results were displayed to doctors, stating the usual ranges and highlighting abnormal results. Doctors noted that the increase in efficiency of their work was not only saving them time, but also peoples’ lives.

John has always strived to bring arts and science closer together. His love for the crossover between science and arts is reflected in his publication “Recent chemical studies concerning the origin of life”, a poetic take on the contemporary scientific discussions on the foundations of life. He also pursued many artistic hobbies including bonsai cutting, model aeroplane building and pottery. Moved by the example of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), John wanted the Royal Society of Queensland to combine arts too. His peers had their mind set on subject segregation, so John founded the Queensland Academy of Arts and Sciences (QAAS) in September 2000. John planned to spend more time on his pottery during retirement, but as he so eloquently put it:
 “A lot of people can do pottery, but not a lot of people can start an academy.”


As well as working with the QAAS, John still maintains a busy schedule learning and helping others. Volunteering at his local RSL and engaging with his community as well as starting a trust fund to help Aboriginal children get much needed resources. However busy he might be, John still finds time to think back and see what can be improved.

“Doing anything with helping people is a very satisfying job.”

After years of being part of history himself and seeing other parts that history left out, John would like to see his fellow servicemen included in the history books. During his service, John worked hand-in-hand with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, too often written out of the history books. John believes in fully reconciling history, reminding us of a time when many servicemen and women who fought overseas (during both wars) were not allowed back into Australia because of the prejudiced government policy at that time. This being one of his current projects, to write a book on Australian history that includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities.

Driven by passion in a variety of areas John leads an incredible life, with an accumulated one hundred years of wisdom. From his work on haemoglobin, setting up the Queensland Academy of Arts and Sciences, or support for schools to provide resources for students in need, John is actively carving a legacy of helping others.
To those starting their career in chemistry, John shared the following advice:

“Be versatile and patient. You should be very careful to choose the right moment, and always look after yourself because chemistry can be dangerous.”

For more information on John’s time in the military, UQ published an article to celebrate 80 years of his service in 2019 for ANZAC day.
Liam Barnsdale - UQ PhD historian (specialised in Australian contribution in WWII) interviewed Dr John E O’Hagan for his papers.

Interview conducted by Luke Churchman, Alicia Kirk and Alexandra Mutch

O'HAGAN J.E., Recent chemical studies concerning the origin of life, 1964. In 8vo, offp., pp. 20 with 6 pls. and 4 figs. Offprint from Proc. Roy. Soc. Queensland 75(1); Naturama, Palermo, Italy

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