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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Playford, Maxwell Ernest (1902–1943)

by D. F. Fairweather

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Maxwell Ernest Playford (1902-1943), metallurgical engineer, was born on 14 January 1902 at Norton Summit, South Australia, fourth of seven children of John Tomlinson Playford, orchardist, and his wife Rose Eliza, née Inglis, both South Australian born. Thomas Playford was his grandfather and (Sir) Thomas Playford, premier (1938-65) of South Australia, was his first cousin. Educated at Norton Summit Public and Norwood High schools, Max studied mining and metallurgy at the University of Adelaide (B.E., 1925; M.E., 1928) and qualified as a fellow (1924) of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries.

During 1923 Playford worked at Port Pirie, and at Broken Hill, New South Wales. In 1924 he became a research metallurgist at the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd, Queenstown, Tasmania. Promoted to mill superintendent in 1928, he redesigned and rebuilt the old, inefficient mill. It dramatically reduced the emission of sulphur dioxide. One bold innovation, the installation of an 8-ft (2.4 m) diameter ball mill, a giant for its time, was regarded as an extraordinary achievement for a young man: it revealed his confidence, brilliance in research, determination in execution, qualities of leadership, and ability to win the trust of his superiors. On 28 March 1929 at Gormanston he married with Methodist forms Agnes Jessie Anderson, a 20-year-old teacher of art.

Playford was appointed plant superintendent at Great Boulder Pty Gold Mines Ltd, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, in February 1934. Later that year he joined Wiluna Gold Mines Ltd as chief metallurgist. Because the arsenical ore at Wiluna was not amenable to the cyanide process (the common method of extracting gold), he built a smelter into which lead was added to collect the gold and silver, which were then easily separated. From March 1938 he was assistant general manager of Mount Morgan Ltd, Queensland, where he again improved metallurgical performance.

A fervent Baptist and regular churchgoer, Playford lived by the highest standards: he never swore, and was honest to a fault and studious in his disposition, yet he felt at ease with all manner of people. Tall and good-looking, with black, curly hair, he enjoyed gardening and photography, and loved mountaineering, bush-walking and children. He was a member (1934) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and wrote numerous technical papers on metallurgical subjects.

In 1941, hoping to contribute more directly to the war effort, Playford joined the Commonwealth Department of Munitions. After working for the Directorate of Explosives Supply in Melbourne for a short time, he was sent to England and the United States of America to learn the latest methods of production. In Sydney, early in 1943, he was appointed manager of St Mary's Filling Factory, one of the largest munitions plants in Australia. Survived by his wife and their adopted daughter, he died of acute encephalomyelitis on 10 October that year in a private hospital in Sydney and was buried in the cemetery at Norton Summit. His estate was sworn for probate at £6988.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954)
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, Sept-Dec 1943, p xlii
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Oct 1943
  • private information.

Citation details

D. F. Fairweather, 'Playford, Maxwell Ernest (1902–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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