Frank Leslie Stillwell 1888-1963

Written by E.S. Hills.

Frank Leslie Stillwell was born on 27 June 1888, in the family home at Hawthorn, an outer suburb of Melbourne, Victoria. He was the seventh of eight children to Alfred and Mary Eliza Stillwell (née Townsend) and was the youngest son.

His father was a printer and his grandfather, John Stillwell, who arrived in Australia from London in 1855, had also been a printer. Both parents of the grandfather were of Huguenot stock and were silk weavers in London. In his youth, Frank Stillwell, as were all his brothers and sisters, was encouraged to work hard at school, and he was given every chance by his parents. It is remembered that as a boy he was well-liked but was delicate and suffered several illnesses, out of which he grew to enjoy college life in later years. His ailments were chiefly to do with his lungs, and his 17 months as a young man in Antarctica finally cleared them up.

He attended the Auburn State School from 1893 to 1900, and later Hawthorn College to which he won a scholarship. It was from Hawthorn College (a school which no longer exists) that he won an exhibition of £40 and went to study at Melbourne University in 1907. He elected to study Science but included Mining Engineering in his course also. He held a resident scholarship at Ormond College, one of the affiliated colleges of the University of Melbourne.

When Stillwell started his University studies, John Walter Gregory had only recently resigned from the Chair of Geology and the position of Director of the Geological Survey of Victoria which he also held, being, according to a long letter he wrote to the Argus newspaper, unable to continue in the face of lack of facilities for the development of mining geology, and Ernest Willington Skeats, a double first-class honours man in Geology and Chemistry from the Royal College of Science, London, had just assumed the Chair vacated by Gregory in 1905. Skeats and Stillwell were, in fact, to be closely associated thereafter, and both played a major part in the developments of mining geology during a period in which the mining industry, while facing many problems, made great advances in Australia.

In his university years, Stillwell gained several prizes, holding the Caroline Kay Scholarship, a Government Research Scholarship, and the Kernot Research Scholarship. After graduating BSc with first-class honours at the Final Examination in 1911, he worked for his Master's degree on the geology of a local region (Broadmeadows) in which he showed a growing interest in the microscopical and chemical aspects of rocks and minerals. A few years later, and in fact after the minimum time had elapsed for the attainment of this high honour, he obtained the degree of Doctor of Science with a thesis on "The Metamorphic Rocks of Adelie Land", and in 1919 he won the coveted David Syme Prize for scientific research in Australia-wide competition.

During these early years Stillwell was most active. Not only had he studied the geology of Broadmeadows and the monchiquite dykes of Bendigo, then an active and important goldfield, but after graduation he joined the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914) as geologist, and spent 17 months in Antarctica under the leadership of Douglas Mawson. He was stationed at the Main Base at Commonwealth Bay, Adelie Land, and during the summer season of 1912-1913 was leader of a three-man team which surveyed 50 miles of the coast line east of Commonwealth Bay. It was on this assignment that he collected and studied in the field the metamorphic rocks which were described and discussed in his report, published in 1918, in which he propounded the concept of metamorphic differentiation in order to explain contrasted mineral assemblages which were formed during metamorphism from an initially uniform parent rock. Although his work had already been recognised in Science Progress of April 1919, as notable and worthy of rank with contemporary Scandinavian investigations, it was to be 30 years after its publication that his concept was re-discovered and G.H. Francis, of Cambridge, wrote to Stillwell pointing out that he had made great use of his work in connection with his own researches into the Lewisian metamorphic rocks of Inverness-shire. Stillwell always retained strong personal links with his Antarctic colleagues, and there is little doubt that his period in Antarctica had a great influence on him. Not only did his health clear up but he also made friendships which lasted him all his life, and his abiding interest in "The Home of The Blizzard", that land of snow and ice where his name is preserved in Stillwell Island near Cape Denison, must have served partly to fill some of the emotional gaps in his life. Stillwell never married. He was indeed a retiring and even shy man, especially as a young man. Despite the clarity of his thought and writing, it was not until the later years of his life that he expressed himself at all freely in public and, indeed, he was almost tongue-tied in the presence of a large audience. Nevertheless he had a warmth behind a very conservative and rather retiring exterior, which those who were fortunate enough to work at all closely with him soon discovered, and his friendships and family ties always remained strong.

On returning from Antarctica early in 1914, he went to Adelaide as Acting Lecturer in Mineralogy during 1914 and 1915. After enlistment in 1916 with the Australian Military Forces he was withdrawn from the Army to assist in the newly-developed Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, which was later to develop into the present Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Stillwell worked with the Advisory Council until 1919, conducting detailed studies on the occurrence of gold in the Bendigo mines on behalf of the Gold Research Committee which had been set up under the Council. His papers on the Bendigo gold occurrences cover detailed studies in the mines and in the laboratory, which demonstrated the association of gold with particular geological structures and with certain minerals, and his theories concerning these. He was particularly influenced by Taber's notions as to growth pressures developing during crystallisation in porous rocks in the absence of pre-existing fissures, and was also led to believe that gold was concentrated and precipitated by carbonaceous material in black slates. From 1919 to 1921 he worked at Broken Hill, New South Wales, as assistant geologist under the direction of Dr E.C. Andrews, of the Mines Department of that State. Dr W.R. Browne, doyen of Australian geologists today, and Frank Stillwell both made petrographic studies of the country rocks surrounding the Broken Hill ore bodies, but the two young geologists did not agree as to the origin of those rocks, and a controversy developed therefrom. Many years later, in 1954, both men were simultaneously elected to fellowship of the newly-established Australian Academy of Science, and renewed acquaintance in the Academy for the first time in many years.

On completing his work at Broken Hill, Stillwell returned to Victoria as staff geologist to the Bendigo Amalgamated Goldfield Company, but during 1922 and 1923 he visited mining fields in Europe, South Africa and the United States of America.

This overseas tour, which was made at his own expense, brought to his notice the developing subject of Mineragraphy, that is the study of opaque minerals and particularly the ore minerals in polished section under the reflecting microscope On his return to Australia and his assumption of the first Research Fellowship of the University of Melbourne, he began his mineragraphic studies of Australian ores, working on the Broken Hill deposits. This work immediately revealed the economic as well as the scientific potentialities of the study of polished ores, for, in particular, he was able to locate, in the form of minute dispersed particles, a good deal of the silver content in the galena in the Broken Hill lode, which he demonstrated was present in the form of the mineral dyscrasite. This discovery immediately aroused interest among scientists and mining men and led to his appointment as Research Petrologist in 1927 to the newly formed Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Extending his sphere of interest, he visited the West Australian gold fields and re-mapped the Kalgoorlie field in 1927 and 1928. Here he joined geological and mineralogical work in the careful examination of the rock types in order to discover the relationship between their emplacement or alteration, and the emplacement of the gold-bearing ores. This brought together an array of data which hitherto had been treated separately and drew attention to the possibility of the extension of the Kalgoorlie field into areas where similar geological conditions could be demonstrated to exist. It was largely as an outcome of Stillwell's findings that further exploration and development was stimulated, and the Kalgoorlie field was revived and extended.

On his return to Melbourne Stillwell continued work on the Kalgoorlie telluride ore minerals, publishing an important paper on them in 1931. From 1929 until his retirement at the age of 65 in June 1953, he was in charge of the Mineragraphic Section of C.S.I.R. (later C.S.I.R.O.) which section is housed in the University of Melbourne adjoining the Department of Geology. For many years he took the courses in mining geology for the advanced students for Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Mining Engineering, and also gave instruction in mineragraphy in the laboratory, where many of the Melbourne graduates who are now working throughout Australia first met him. He was a patient teacher if somewhat pedantic, and, in order to appreciate him, it was necessary to recognise his reliance on logic, clear thinking and skill in the application of techniques. He never gave up an idea without a fight, and perhaps his conservativeness at times caused him to cling to an outmoded idea. But indeed the range of his work and its importance had been such that he was in the field of ore mineralogy and mineragraphy the undoubted leader in this country and a major figure in the world. Under his direction, ores, mattes, slags, spiesses and mill products from all over Australia were investigated, with results of great economic importance particularly in regard to tracing the causes of losses in mineral recovery of gold, copper, lead, zinc, tin and other ores and thus in checking the efficiency of mineral separation methods used by the mines. Nearly every major ore deposit and many smaller occurrences in Australia were investigated by Stillwell and his associates in the Mineragraphic Section, where he was joined in 1935 by the late A.B. Edwards, who was his most distinguished student and colleague. Edwards' untimely death in 1960 was a great blow to Stillwell, but he was fortunate in that others were there to carry on in his laboratories, where he was afforded facilities to continue his own work until his death.

During his retirement he was appointed consultant to the Broken Hill Geological Committee, and continued his work with Broken Hill rocks and minerals. His last paper on these was published in 1959, 37 years after his early work on the Broken Hill district.

In all Stillwell published 68 scientific papers, dealing in later years chiefly with mineragraphy.

Stillwell was a member of the Royal Society of Victoria from 1910 until his death, and of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy from 1921. In both these bodies he played an important role. He was a member of the Committee of the Victorian Branch of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy for several years and at one time its Chairman. In the Royal Society of Victoria he was Councillor from 1929 to 1963, Honorary Secretary from 1929 to 1947, Vice-President (1949-52), President (1953 and 1954) and Honorary Editor of the Society's Journal from 1956 to 1963.

Many honours came his way and he deeply appreciated them. In 1948 the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy awarded him the Institute Medal. He was awarded the Clarke Memorial Medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1951, and was appointed Correspondent of the Geological Society of America in 1952, and Honorary Member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1953. In 1954 he was created an officer of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his services to Australia and to the Geological Sciences, and it was in this year that he was elected to fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science. To honour his seventieth birthday, the Stillwell Anniversary Volume was published in 1958 by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

As a University man, Stillwell was a life member of the Melbourne University Graduate Union, and the Graduate Union received its first legacy from him, a sum of £2,000. [He left munificent legacies also to the Royal Society of Victoria (£4,000), the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (£2,000), the Geological Society of Australia (£1,000) and to the Australian Academy of Science (£1,000).] He had been a keen college cricketer, being indeed an accomplished batsman and a man with an abiding interest in sport. He took up tennis in middle life and played regularly with colleagues for several years, but eventually it was bowls which became his major outdoor interest. He was, too, always a keen chess player. All this despite the fact that in his youth he had had lung trouble, and in later years he faced with great fortitude recurring deterioration of the sinews of his hands causing partial loss of the use of his fingers and necessitating periodical operations. He pursued a life which in his youth was extremely strenuous and called for the highest degree of physical courage; in later years he pursued his scientific researches and his many other activities with equal fortitude and tenacity. He was a man of few spoken words, but of great loyalty and devotion not only to Science, but also to his colleagues and to his family and friends.

As mentioned above, the death of his younger colleague, A.B. Edwards, was a great loss to him. Edwards had acknowledged Stillwell's role as "tutor, guide, instructor and colleague" in the foreword to his book of the "Textures of the Ore Minerals", and Stillwell's tribute to Edwards in the American Mineralogist (Vol. 46, 1961, pp. 488-96) expresses his own deep feelings about his friend and associate.

Stillwell and his scientific colleagues were men of a period, seeing in Australia the growth and development of the application of Science to industry, and having inborn the abilities and desires which, with opportunity and support, lead on to great achievement. He explored the Earth under rigorous conditions at the surface, in the depths of the mines, and in the laboratory. He was an initiator, along with many others who in their own disciplines were likewise initiators and from whom the present growth of Science in Australia derives an enormous amount. One can, in looking back, identify these people and fortunately many of them are still with us; but to Stillwell it would have been a challenge to continue this work, and this challenge is one that must now be faced with all the energy, the honesty and the élan with which the men of Stillwell's generation faced their problems.

One of his younger colleagues who formerly knew him in the Geology Department, University of Melbourne, and later worked with him in the Mineragraphic Section of C.S.I.R.O., Dr George Baker, has not only assiduously collected together his materials and papers but has also very kindly provided much of the factual information on which the writer's account of Stillwell is based.

As one who knew Stillwell as a student and was taught by him, as one who worked with him as his first Demonstrator in practical classes in mineragraphy in the University of Melbourne, and who was closely associated with him in the Royal Society of Victoria, I believe that the appreciation which has been expressed of Stillwell is in every sense true and just.

Stillwell was a great man of Science. A little hampered as well as endowed by nature, moulded by the influences of his time, and at times frustratingly conservative and rigid to younger associates, he was a true pioneer, an explorer of Nature and an intellectual master whose influence has spread like ripples from a stone in a pond, affecting geology and geologists, mineralogy and mineralogists, mining and mining men, not only in Australia but throughout the world.

This biography owes much to Stillwell's surviving younger sister, Miss Olive Stillwell, who very kindly provided not only biographical material but also her thoughts about her brother and his career. It is from Miss Olive Stillwell that we know what many of us had sensed - that he was deeply appreciative of the course of events in his life and work and particularly of the respect and support which permitted him to continue in harness until the day of his death. He died in Melbourne after a short illness on 8 February 1963, in his 75th year.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol.1, no.1, 1966. It was written by E.S. Hills.

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