Monday, December 03, 2012

Berlei's dodgy survey boss

Professor Henry Chapman in 1928. 
Berlei might have employed some rad ladies, but the man in charge of the sizing survey was Professor Henry Chapman, of the University of Sydney's Medical School. The university's involvement – for which it was paid in £10,000 worth of Berlei shares – lent the enterprise a ring of reassuring medical authority.

Tall, imposing and with a forceful, charismatic manner, at the age of 47 the British-born Professor Chapman had already enjoyed a glittering academic career at the universities of Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, distinguishing himself in physiology, pathology and pharmacology.

Anthropometry wasn't really his bag… but more pertinently, he relished public attention and had an excellent reputation for working with industry. Chapman would have been a model scholar in today's corporatised, publicity-obsessed universities.

In the earliest of his many consulting roles, in 1908 Chapman testified before a Western Australian Royal Commission on the use of the preservative sulphur dioxide in meat processing. Thanks to his knowledge of yeast, in 1916 he helped found Sydney Technical College's first school of baking technology.

When he chaired a 1919-20 inquiry into lung diseases in the Broken Hill mines that recommended compensation for miners affected by phthisis and pneumoconiosis, Chapman also managed the impressive feat of being respected by both mining companies and union leaders.

For the Berlei sizing survey, he recruited his anatomy colleague, Dr Stewart Arthur Smith, plus two undergraduate science students, Mr R Tannahill and (the aforementioned rad lady) Della Lytton Pratt, as research assistants. While Chapman and Smith supervised, the students were in charge of collecting, classifying and correlating data from 23 different body measurements per participant, using specially designed calipers and rulers.

The Berlei survey was the high point of Chapman's career. In 1928 he was appointed as the university's Director of Cancer Research. Then, as now, cancer research was a prestigious gig, and Chapman's lack of experience in the field bitterly divided his colleagues. A 1930 series of media exposés painted him as a publicity-seeker with dubious research methods.

It seems his work took a toll on his family life. In 1916 Chapman separated from his wife Julie (with whom he had a son and two daughters), and maintained a glamorous bachelor lifestyle at the University Club in Sydney. He also kept apartments in the city and Bondi, and by the time of his cancer research appointment, he was living way beyond his means.

In May 1934, Chapman was caught embezzling cancer research funds and committed suicide by taking a cocktail of poisons. His estate was divvied up among his creditors. Unfortunately, today he's best remembered for this final disgrace, rather than his contributions to public health.

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