Steele was born in Plymouth, England, the son of Samuel Madden Steele, a surgeon, and his wife Hariette Sarah, née Acock. Steele was educated at the Plymouth Grammar School; he then began an apprenticeship with his father. Steele migrated to Australia in 1889, where he qualified as a pharmaceutical chemist at the Victorian College of Pharmacy. He then practised as a pharmacist.
Steele enrolled in medicine before transferring to the science course at the University of Melbourne in 1896, being then nearly 26 years of age, and did such distinguished work that when still only a second year student he was appointed tutorial lecturer in chemistry at the three affiliated colleges, Trinity, Ormond and Queen's. Steele graduated BSc in 1898 with first-class honours in chemistry, having during his course won exhibitions in chemistry, natural philosophy and biology, and the Wyselaskie and university scholarships in chemistry. In 1899 Steele was appointed acting-professor of chemistry at Adelaide, and at the end of that year went to Europe with an 1851 scholarship.
Steele worked with Professor J. Norman Collie at London and did research work under Professor Abegg at Breslau, Germany. Returning to London he did research work with Sir William Ramsay, and then went to Canada and became a senior demonstrator in chemistry at McGill University, Montreal. Steele returned to Europe to become assistant professor of chemistry at the Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh.
In 1905 Steele was appointed senior lecturer and demonstrator in chemistry at the University of Melbourne. While in this position Steele, working in conjunction with Kerr Grant (who later became professor of Physics at the University of Adelaide), constructed a micro-balance that was sensistive to 4 nanograms. An account of this balance written by Steele and Grant was published in Vol. 82A of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1909. As a result of their work the remarkable researches of Dr Whytlaw Gray and Sir William Ramsay on the direct estimation of the density of the Radium emanation was made possible.
On 20 December 1910 Steele was appointed professor of chemistry at the newly established University of Queensland. He was elected president of the board of faculties and his experience was of great use in setting the university on its course. Steele's academic work was interrupted by World War I; from June 1915 he was working for the Ministry of Munitions, London. Steele had a new type of gas mask which he had invented, and an invention to be used against submarines, both of which were presented to the British government. While working for the government he was able to show that synthetic phenol could be produced for less than half the price then being paid for it. He worked out an entirely new process, and designed and had erected a large government factory for its production. While working for the government he refused an offer to go to America at £5000 a year and when it was suggested that an honour might be conferred courteously intimated that he was glad to work for his country without either additional salary or honours. Later on he did important work for the government in connection with poison gases.
On leaving England at the end of the war Steele received letters of thanks from Mr Winston Churchill and Lord Moulton for the great services he had rendered. He took up his university work again in 1919 and in that year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London.
Steele had overworked during the war and his constitution never fully recovered from the strain. He resigned his chair in 1931 and lived in retirement at Brisbane until his death. He married Amy Woodhead of Melbourne who survived him. He had no children.
Steele was a man of medium height with a frank and open countenance, with an unselfish outlook on life, and a personality that attracted both his students and his associate workers. He was a tireless worker and an ideal researcher – honest, patient, imaginative and cautious. Circumstances prevented him doing a large amount of original work, but much of the work he did during the war years was of a secret nature, the value of which cannot be estimated. Earlier in his career he did research in connection with the determination of transport numbers of electrolytes and the electrochemistry of non-aqueous solutions. The heavy workload of organising and carrying on a new department at the University of Queensland left him little time for research, but as chairman of the Royal Commission for the control of prickly pear he was associated with the successful solution of a problem which was a great danger to Queensland.
- m., D. O. (1934). "Bertram Dillon Steele. 1870-1934". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 1 (3): 345. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1934.0018.
- Chiswell, Barry (1990). "Steele, Bertram Dillon (1870–1934)". Australian Dictionary of Biography 12. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
- R. Whytlaw Gray and William Ramsay (26 January 1911). "The Density of Niton ("Radium Emanation") and the Disintegration Theory". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character (The Royal Society) 84: 536–550. JSTOR 93258.
- "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 21 October 2010.
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Steele, Bertram". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
Hardman-Knight, A; University of Queensland (1935), A tribute to a great scientist : Bertram Dillon Steele foundation professor of chemistry in the University of Queensland, s.n, retrieved 23 July 2014 – available online