Wilfred (Wilf) Ernest Ewers (1919-2020)

By Helen Wolff February 19th, 2020

Early life

Wilfred (Wilf) Ernest Ewers was born in Perth on 23 December 1919 and did his primary education at North Perth State School and West Leederville State School. He was too young to apply for the Scholarship Examination in his final year at West Leederville so commenced his secondary education at Perth Boys School. He won a Scholarship from Perth Boys and entered Perth Modern School in 1932. He was convinced by the Headmaster to repeat his first year. When a choice of subjects were offered in his second year he chose Chemistry, Physics and German. The Headmaster tried to convince him that Latin would be more useful to an aspiring chemist, but Wilf knew that Germany was a centre of chemical research and industry Wilf’s Sunday school teacher, Norman Walker, was also a chemist at the Cresco superphosphate plant in Bassendean. After classes, Norman would talk to Wilf about chemistry and also provide him with small quantities of common chemical compounds to experiment with at home. Norman Walker subsequently became the Chief Scientist at Cresco and Wilf remembers thinking (as he approached graduation) that was a possible line of work for him.

In his fourth year at Perth Modern School, Wilf was made ‘Science Cadet’ which entailed assisting the teacher in preparing practical demonstrations. A more attractive inducement was being allowed to spend time in the laboratory during lunchtime. This he used in, among other things, following an early interest in growing crystals.

“I remember being rather pleased with the production of some hexagonal crystals of lead nitrate.”

Tertiary education

After completing his B.Sc. degree course in 1939, Professor Bayliss organised for Wilf a vacation job in the laboratory at the Midland Junction Railway Workshops. Wilf was quickly confronted with professional responsibility. He was given samples of alloys from worn locomotive bearings and asked to analyse them so that their compositions could be adjusted for re-use in bearings. This was no longer a laboratory exercise as his results were going to be used.

After this assignment, he was entrusted with a small research project to devise a test for measuring the extent to which lubricating oils were being diluted in service with diesel oil. The test was based on viscosity which was measured in a water bath at a temperature of 100°F, a temperature that could only be maintained in the hot laboratory by adding ice. This vacation appointment, and the recommendation that he got from Dr Cyril Kent at Midland, subsequently helped Wilf when he applied for a position in CSIR.

Early career

After completing his B.Sc. degree course in 1939, Professor Bayliss organised for Wilf a job in the laboratory at the Midland Junction Railway Workshops. Wilf was quickly confronted with professional responsibility. He was given samples of alloys from worn locomotive bearings and asked to analyse them so that their compositions could be adjusted for re-use in bearings. This was no longer a laboratory exercise as his results were going to be used.

After this assignment, he was entrusted with a small research project to devise a test for measuring the extent to which lubricating oils were being diluted in service with diesel oil. The test was based on viscosity which was measured in a water bath at a temperature of 100°F, a temperature that could only be maintained in the hot laboratory by adding ice. This vacation appointment, and the recommendation that he got from Dr. Cyril Kent at Midland, subsequently helped Wilf when he applied for a position in CSIR.

“Although the subject was new to him, his method of approach to the problem and his report of the investigation would have done credit to a more experienced man, and showed him to possess an ability for investigation work.” – Chief Chemist, Dr. Cyril R. Kent

Time at CSIRO

1941-1946 (Perth)

With his Honours degree behind him, Wilf aspired to join CSIR, and in particular, the new Division of Industrial Chemistry which was being set up in Melbourne with Ian Wark as its first Chief.

His application was successful and he was all set to move to Melbourne when “some of the locals” made representations to John Curtin (then Leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament), citing the importance of potash fertilisers to the nation’s agriculture and suggesting that the Division second him to continue working at the University of Western Australia on the Alunite Project. So it transpired. Over the next six years he was involved with several aspects of the Project.

1947-1962 (Melbourne)

In November 1946, an opportunity arose to transfer to the headquarters of the Division at Fishermens Bend to join the Physical Chemistry Section. He worked in the surface chemistry group with Keith Sutherland and Wark.

His first project was to examine work that had been started by Reg Goldacre who had left the Division. He had been studying the flotation of the tungsten mineral, scheelite, which was being mined on King Island, an operation that was blighted by very low recoveries from the gravity separation methods then in use. In the event, he was no more successful than Goldcare in achieving a useful separation from the garnet andradite also in the ore.

Then followed a more intensive study of the flotation properties of the tin mineral, cassiterite. Wilf spent a lot of time studying the flotation behaviour of casseiterite, both at a fundamental level and in trying to apply his results to a practical separation of cassiterite from an ore from Maranboy, Northern Territory.

The next challenge was mineral separation. Australia’s wool clip, most of which was (and still is) baled and exported without processing, contains in its crude form up to 15% wool grease which is a potentially valuable product that can be refined to lanolin and contains a variety of interesting compounds. The wool treated in Australia was being scoured in soapy water and the scour liquors with with their wool grease content became a noxious waste. It was suggested to Wilf that the wool grease might be amenable to recovery by flotation.

In 1954 Wilf was given the opportunity to travel to England, France, Germany and the United States to visit mines and research groups where flotation was being used and/or studied.

His work must have impressed his Chief, Dr Ian Wark, because in 1955 he was promoted to the position of Divisional Secretary (similar to an Assistant Chief) when Mr Lewis Lewis was promoted to be the inaugural Officer-in-Charge of the Industrial Research Liaison Section.

1963-1981 (Perth)

In 1959 Charles Court became Minister for Industrial Development in the newly elected Brand government and pressure mounted on CSIRO to extend its research activities in Western Australia beyond areas relevant to primary interest. In 1962 Wilf was given the task of setting up a branch laboratory of the Division of Applied Mineralogy in Perth. His brief was very broad ‘to work on minerals and related topics’. He spent the first six months on the task ‘to acquaint myself with the mineral industry in the State, establish connections with the industry, the University and the Geological Survey’ His efforts were highly successful: CSIRO’s main activities for the mineral industry are centred in Perth. Wilf retired from CSIRO in 1981.

Retirement

After his retirement in January 1981, Wilf was invited to join the the Council of the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) on which he served for six years, chairing several of its committees including one that reformed the promotion system for academic staff, and finally becoming Deputy Chairman of the Council. This service was recognised when, in 1987, WAIT became the Curtin University of Technology and appointed Wilf as Foundation Fellow of the University.

Also in 1981, the Western Australian government appointed Wilf to the first Board of the Western Australian Mining and Petroleum Research Institute (WAMPRI) and then to its successor, the Mining and Energy Research Institute of Western Australia (MERIWA). These were set up to foster research with government money as the seed but requiring substantial contributions in funds and logistics from companies that might benefit from the investigations. With old friend the late Joe Lord as Chairman, these were very successful and MERIWA is still going. Wilf retired from the Board on reaching 70.

Awards and Honours

 

1990 W E Ewers Award established by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (WA Branch) in his honour.
1987 Foundation Fellow of Curtin University of Technology
1981 Board member of the Western Australian Mining and Petroleum Research Institute (WAMPRI)
1974 Federal President, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1969-70 Branch President (WA), Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1957 Fellowship of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1944 Master of Science (University of Western Australia)

Source

  • Ewers, WE, 2013, Personal communication.
  • Ewers, WE, 2013 ‘My interests in science‘ (unpublished)
  • CoResearch, CSIRO’s staff newsletter (no. 42, Sept 1962), p. 1

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