Dr Wilf Ewers – “Scientist teamed work with rock-solid skills”

September 29th, 2020

Courtesy of the West Australian newspaper

While the WA mining industry was reinvigorated in the 1960s, expert minds were assessing what the future held. A professional specialist in minerals was needed. So was a person with the personal skills to inspire investigation teamwork.

In Wilf Ewers, WA got both. Raised in Perth, by 1962 he had spent 15 years working for the CSIRO. He was then persuaded to return to his home State, specifically to set up a western branch laboratory of the Melbourne-based division of applied mineralogy.

Helping miners find ore deposits was among the results but he was to achieve far more than that.

Well before celebrating his 100th birthday party last year, he could look back on decades of travels, bringing finesse and grace to the often hard-headed business of science.

A former colleague, Dr Charles Butt, summarises his versatility: “Wilf consulted widely with industry and encouraged research staff to do so … a knowledgeable, likeable and skilled scientist and negotiator, he was also good at explaining science to the general public.

“And he shielded scientific staff from the bureaucracy so they could get on with their research.”

What is more, Ewers changed the course of golf, literally. Having become a keen player at 45, at Cottesloe Golf Club, he was concerned to discover that many fairways were in a poor state. His knowledge of chemistry was applied to soil tests. Diagnosis: insufficient trace elements. This was rectified and the club has since enjoyed world-class fairways and greens.

Golfers everywhere have been known to grumble about handicapping procedures, but Cottesloe members had every reason to welcome Ewers’ appointment as club handicapper – he had topped the State in maths in his last year at Perth Modern, 1936.

He had, however, excelled long before his secondary education.

Wilfred Ernest Ewers was born in Perth on December 23, 1919, youngest son of Lillian (nee Clark) and Ernest Ewers. He attended North Perth and West Leederville primary schools, and won a scholarship to “Mod”.

He entered the University of Western Australia in 1937, just as the Great Depression was ending, and completed his degree in 1939.

From 1941-47 he worked in Perth, for both the Midland Railway Workshops and then the CSIRO in Perth, probing practical matters such as locomotive bearings and lubrication oils, before transferring to Melbourne.

By then he had wed Marie Haworth, whom he had met in church. Their marriage of nearly 73 years ended only with her death in 2017.

As the couple resettled in their home State, WA was on the starting blocks of an exciting period, especially in the Pilbara and Eastern Goldfields.

Ewers hired ambitious young scientists and geochemists. With them he visited mining camps, slept in the open in inhospitable deserts and travelled to isolated rock formations in Land Rovers long before air-conditioning made such ventures more comfortable.

“Wilf saw Mt Newman when Mt Whaleback was a mountain,” his son Graeme, says, “and he was very involved with Western Mining Corporation in Kambalda, near Kalgoorlie.”

Dr Mike Thornber, another former colleague, says it was Wilf’s “vision that made him a great leader. The scientists he appointed, and the research chosen for study have helped the WA mineral industry to be a world leader.” Examples are: lithium spodumme minerals studied in the mid-1960s; the WA nickel province; Hammersley iron ore deposits in the Norseman-Leonora area; and regolith studies in relation to gold and base metal exploration. Research in several of these continues.

“He put much effort into keeping harmony in the expanding group of scientists by establishing the Wilf Ewers golf day. Staff played 18 or nine holes of golf at ‘Royal’ Wembley Downs, depending on their particular lack of skill. An evening barbecue followed.”

Ewers’ last game at Cottesloe was on his 90th birthday, ending the round with a 4.5m putt for a birdie. On his 100th, a phone conversation with the club included assuring all that “golf is the sport amongst sports and Cottesloe Golf Club has given me great joy.”

Since retirement in 1981 he served six years on the Councial of the WA Institute of Technology, now Curtin Universtity, and was made a foundation fellow of the university. Among many other appointments and accolades, Ewers was particularly proud to receive the award named after Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall, a major figure in the WA mining industry. Ewers, at 92, gave his 10-minute acceptance speech without notes. Typically, he concentrated on praising others.

Dr Wilf Ewers, who lived out his last years in Augusta, to be close to family, died on February 27 2020. He is survived by daughters Anne Boud and Penny Williams, son Graeme, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Perth Modern was the launch pad. More than 80 years ago the staff appointed Wilf a “science cadet”, helping teachers prepare practical demonstrations. The cadet never forgot the boosts that made him one of the best.