George E. Cory, chemist and historian, was the son of George Nicholas Cory and his wife Susannah Emma Flowers. He received a fragmentary elementary education and had to work for a living from the age of thirteen. After four years during which he educated himself in various subjects he spent three years as a scholar at St. John's College, Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, before being accepted, in 1881, as a learner in the Woolwich works of the electrical engineer William Siemens. Here he tested transatlantic cables and electric lighting, and managed to take out provisional patents for several small inventions. However, his interests lay in academia and from 1884 he taught in several schools, while studying chemistry, physics and comparative anatomy through the University of Cambridge from 1886 as a non-collegiate student. He was awarded the degree Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 1888. During the next three years he was a demonstrator in chemistry at King's College, University of Cambridge, while studying for a medical degree, but did not finish these studies. He was, however, awarded the degree Master of Arts (MA), and elected a Fellow of the Chemical Society.
In 1891 Cory came to South Africa as vice-principal of the Public School at Grahamstown. The University of the Cape of Good Hope admitted him to the MA degree in 1892 on the basis of his MA degree awarded by the University of Cambridge. Early in 1892 he started a series of evening lectures on chemistry and its history, for example: "Allotropy", "Coal tar and its products", and "Phosphorescence, fluorescence and iridescence". A further series followed in 1895. He was a popular and fascinating lecturer, illustrating his talks with various demonstrations. In March 1892 he became a committee member of the Albany Natural History Society, and in June was elected on the first committee of the re-established Eastern Province Literary and Scientific Society, serving also on its subcommittee for natural history and on the editorial committee of the E.P. Magazine. His lecture on allotropy, with special reference to the allotropic forms of silver, which he delivered in November 1892, was published in the magazine a few months later. In 1894 he accepted a post as assistant lecturer in chemistry and physical science at St. Andrew's College, Grahamstown, where he set up a chemical laboratory - perhaps the first in the Eastern Cape - and prepared boys for the examinations of the University of the Cape of Good Hope. Meanwhile he continued to read for his medical degree and performed some medical duties at the Albany general hospital, but later abandoned these studies. From 1893 he also served as public analyst for the Eastern Cape for many years.
In 1904 Cory was appointed as the first professor of physics and chemistry at the newly established Rhodes University College in Grahamstown. He relinquished the teaching of physics the next year, when Alexander Ogg* was appointed as professor of physics, remaining as professor (and for nine years the only lecturer) in the Department of Chemistry and Metallurgy. He was a friendly and charming person who had a strong interest in the welfare and progress of his students and was very popular at Rhodes. His interests at this time included physical anthropology, for in 1906 he undertook a trip to Graaff Reinet in search of Bushman skulls and skeletons. However, the remains found were those of Bantu. He was a founding member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1902, serving as joint secretary of Section B at the Association's meeting in Grahamstown in 1908. He also became a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1905, and of the of the South African Association of Analytical Chemists (from 1921 the South African Chemical Institute), in 1920.
Cory edited The diary of the Rev. Francis Owen, MA, missionary to Dingaan in 1837-1838, which was published by the Van Riebeeck Society in 1926. He was particularly interested in the history of the Eastern Cape, an interest that appears to have been sparked when he came across a collection of 1820 settler documents in Grahamstown. It led eventually to a monumental work on the topic, The rise of South Africa..., which was published in six volumes between 1910 and 1939. He received wide recognition for this work, including a knighthood for his services to science and literature in 1920, and an honorary Doctor of Literature degree conferred on him by the University of Cambridge in 1921. In addition to his academic work he was a musician who performed regularly at college concerts. He retired in 1925 to settle in Cape Town as government historiographer. In 1931 he presented his private library to Rhodes University College, where it formed the nucleus of the Cory Library for Historical Research.