Professor Chapman

Professor Henry Chapman


On May 25, 1934, Professor Henry Chapman was suddenly taken ill while at work in the Physics Building at Sydney University. He  was rushed to hospital, but could not be revived.

Henry Chapman death notice

The death notice

Initially it was assumed he had suffered a heart attack, or a stroke, but the attending doctor had some doubts and refused to issue a death certificate.

The doctor’s concerns would  prove to be justified. It was discovered that Chapman had stolen tens of thousands of pounds from the Royal Society and the Australian National Research Council.  On the day of his death he had been given an ultimatum to explain  financial discrepancies.

A post-mortem was conducted, and a government analyst  examined organs removed from the body.  It was not really a surprise when traces of poison were found. The amount did not seem sufficient to cause death, but it was believed the professor had been clever enough to choose toxins which would disseminate quickly.

The Sun newspaper published an article in which Chapman’s  skills in toxicology were recalled;

‘Among the many reminiscences of the late Professor Chapman, it is recalled that, in the course of his teaching when a professor at Sydney University, it amused him at times to offer some of his senior students an exacting test in the study of poisons.’       

Sydney University

On one occasion, Chapman  gave some senior students  a specimen of a substance  containing a powerful poison, then challenged them to analyse  it.  Even the most brilliant students were unable to identify  the toxin. The professor was highly amused at their failure.

During the coronial inquiry  a medical expert was called by the Chapman family’s lawyer, Mr Edward Loxton K.C.  The expert argued that the death could have been caused by heart failure. Mr Loxton did his best to influence the outcome of the inquiry, by emphasizing how difficult it would be for the dead man’s family to cope with a verdict of suicide. However, the coroner found that 55 year old Henry George Chapman died from a cocktail of poisons, willfully administered by himself. It was later concluded that the mixture he ingested included morphine and atropine, and also the rare South American arrow poison, curare.  Curare causes asphyxiation due to paralysis of the diaphragm. I wonder if it was curare that defeated the pharmacology  students?

There had been  a huge turn-out at Professor Chapman’s funeral, even  though some of his colleagues in attendance  were already aware of a dark side to his personality.  The service was held at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point.

Mourners at Professor Chapmans funeral.

Part of the huge turn out at the   funeral in Darling Point.

Others  found the revelations difficult to comprehend. In an editorial  published in the Labor Daily on June 4 , Max Marlen wrote;

A section of the flapper press is attempting to paint Professor Chapman as a fleeting phantom whose movements are shrouded in mystery, whereas the truth is that he loved the glamour of the limelight and, whether at fete or ball, he was always well to the fore. He tiptoed nowhere – rather did he broad-shoulder with heavy tread his way through it all.

Professor Chapman had the bonhomie of a successful village publican, and if you were asked to place your hand on the shoulder of an unscrupulous embezzler, he would be one of the last you would expect.

Detectives have examined the dust in the Physics Building at the University, as at first it was thought that Professor Chapman might have purposely smoked  a cigarette charged with cyanide of potassium.

Coming down in the lift from the Workers’ Compensation Commission a few days  before the Professor’s death, I chatted with him concerning  the prospects of the Australian cricket team. ‘I think Ponsford is set for a big score in the first test. And I would include Kippax if it is weather like this’, said the Professor, as he put up his umbrella and strode down Elizabeth Street in the rain. Little did I know that it was the last sight I would have of his familiar figure.

On July 18 1934, an auction of Professor Chapman’s household effects took place. Of great interest to those who attended was an extensive library of scientific text books, including many on toxicology.

In a will dated May 3,  just weeks before his death,  Professor Chapman  left everything to  his wife Adelaide, who  had also been named as executrix.  At first it seemed she would be a wealthy widow, with £85,000  in bonds, and various  parcels of shares listed in an attachment.   However, it was soon discovered that, like the rest of his life, the will was a complete sham.  Despite the huge sum he  had stolen, he died a  bankrupt.  Over  £30,000  of embezzled funds had vanished without trace. One theory  was that he was being blackmailed, but no evidence of this ever came to light..

It was at the bankruptcy court proceedings that the extent of Chapman’s double life was revealed. For nearly twenty years he had been having an affair  in Sydney with  a woman called Alice Dunn.  In addition to his university rooms, he had kept  a flat in the city (Hunter Street)  and one at Bondi.  Miss Dunn had to hand back a Chevrolet  car and £500 in Australian  government bonds  her lover had given her.  These were not particularly lavish gifts in the scheme of things.

Alice Maude Dunne

Alice Dunne, appearing at the coroner’s court.

Alice Dunn  first met Professor Chapman in 1916. She was the naïve young  assistant secretary of the Royal Society, of which Chapman was honorary  treasurer.  She was now in her mid thirties, and in a truly invidious position.   She was immediately dismissed from her position at the Royal Society.  Worse still,  all the intimate details of her 18 year  affair were revealed in court; letters, countless telegrams, even a poem written on the back of a photo.

My darling Allie,

I send you a loving kiss as a tribute of my affection. I want it to be on your lips and spirit and through your whole being. I wish that it may diffuse an irradiation of joy and happiness in every part of you. It will then give you the same gladness that love for you has given me. (January 3, 1919)

Darling Alice:-

I love thee – I love thee!

‘Tis all that I can say.

It is my vision in the night,

My dreaming in the day;

The very echo of my heart,

The blessing when I pray.

I love thee, I love thee.

Is all that I can say.

The newspapers had a field day, especially the tabloid Truth.

Newspaper photo of Professor Henry George Chapman

Coverage in the Truth newspaper included a photo of Professor Chapman at work.

Almost from the beginning of their long affair, Chapman had been promising to marry Miss Dunn, telling her that his wife in Blackheath was dying of cancer. This was completely untrue. In a newspaper report three years later  Mrs Chapman was  still living in Blackheath,  but on an extended holiday  at Port Macquarie  with her son Rupert.

Adelaide Chapman died at Bowral in 1972, 38 years after her husband assured his mistress she would not survive more than a few months. Oddly enough her death notice read,  ‘Loved wife of Henry G. Chapman.’

What caused this  brilliant man to go off the rails so spectacularly?  He was clearly a  narcissist with  a poor moral compass.   However,  I can only agree  with an editorial comment in a Sydney newspaper;

The Chapman affair seems likely to go down in history as an unsolved,  psychological enigma.


  1. Fascinating story … thanks Pauline !!!

    By the way, as an ‘old girl’ from Blackheath I think the Church the daughter married in was St. Aiden’s Anglican not St. Josephs (but I might be wrong!).


    • Pauline

      Thanks Lorraine. Yes, I wondered whether the paper had it wrong about the Church. The Chapmans were definitely Anglican. Maybe her husband was Catholic?

  2. Another fascinating tale of Mr Right being Mr Wrong. It seems these people live larger than life until such time as everything catches up with them, then they sadly take the only way out 🙂

    • Pauline

      I am always fascinated by brilliant, but flawed people. His whole reputation was ruined. I was unable to find out what happened to the mistress, she certainly had no idea of what he was up to and just wasted her life on him.

  3. Another good read Pauline. No doubt the old saying, “dont judge a book by its cover”, definately rings true in this case.

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