Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skeats, Ernest Willington (1875–1953)

by Thomas A. Darragh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ernest Willington Skeats (1875-1953), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Ernest Willington Skeats (1875-1953), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1119

Ernest Willington Skeats (1875-1953), geologist, was born on 1 November 1875 at Berais Town, Southampton, England, son of Frank George Skeats, bank clerk, and his wife, Alice Erena, née Martin. Educated at Handel and Hartley colleges, Southampton, he entered the Royal College of Science, London, in 1893 with a studentship, receiving a first-class associateship in chemistry (1896) and geology (1897). He graduated from the University of London (B.Sc., 1st-class honours, 1899; D.Sc., 1902), with a thesis entitled 'The chemical composition of limestones from upraised coral islands, with notes on their microscopical structures'. He became a demonstrator in geology at the Royal College in 1897.

Skeats's early research work, which established his reputation as a petrologist, centred on the chemical and microscopical characteristics of limestones and particularly on the origin of dolomite. He studied samples from several Pacific islands and undertook field and laboratory studies on the stratigraphy and origin of the Dolomites of the Southern Tyrol. Using his work and that of others on modern coral reefs as a basic for comparison, he was able to show that the Dolomites owed their origin to ancient coral reefs and had undergone changes similar to those affecting modern reefs.

Appointed to the chair of geology and mineralogy in the University of Melbourne in 1904 as successor to J. W. Gregory, Skeats served as dean of the faculty of science in 1910-15 and was president of the Professorial Board in 1922-24. He retired in 1941 as professor emeritus.

In Australia he chiefly studied the petrology of igneous rocks, particularly those of Victoria. He published papers on the Devonian volcanics and granites of Central Victoria, the Cambrian basic lavas of Heathcote, the basic dyke rocks, and the Tertiary volcanic rocks of central and eastern Victoria, particularly the alkali lavas. For his scientific work he received the first award of the Daniel Pidgeon Fund from the Geological Society of London (1903), the (W. B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1929), and the Mueller medal from the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1937).

Skeats's research interests were reflected in the work of his postgraduate students, who concentrated mainly on petrological studies, often following on from his own pioneering work. He insisted on clarity and simplicity in research reports and encouraged publication of results. Under his leadership, the department won an international reputation as a specialist school in igneous petrology and petrography and his students, who included F. L. Stillwell and H. C. Richards, rose to high positions in the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Australian universities, and in Geological Surveys in Africa and India.

A benevolent autocrat, who ran an extraordinarily neat and efficient department, Skeats was genuinely interested nevertheless in the welfare of his staff and their families and his students. He had a ready wit and a great love for Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which he played and sang by heart whenever he had occasion, particularly on student excursions. In his youth he played Association football, as captain of the Royal College of Science team in 1895-97. In Melbourne he took an interest in Australian Rules football, was an avid cricket fan and served as president of the university sports union from 1920 to 1941.

Outside the university, Skeats was active in scientific circles at local and national levels. A council-member of the Royal Society of Victoria from 1906 until his death, he served as vice-president (1908-09), president (1910-11) and trustee (1929-53). He was president of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (1924-25), a councillor for many years and elected honorary member in 1952. A founder of the Australian National Research Council (1919), he was for many years Victorian representative. He was president of section C (Geology) of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1909. In 1925 he served on the projects and finance committee for the foundation of C.S.I.R., and after its establishment in 1926 chaired its mineragraphic committee.

Skeats died, childless, on 20 January 1953 at Glen Iris and was cremated. He had married, first, Mary de Fraine Whitaker (d.1932) on 23 December 1904 at Croydon, Surrey, England, and, second, a widow Anne Sheppard, née Hayes, on 4 May 1940 in Melbourne. Following the death of his wife on 18 June 1967 his estate, valued for probate at £37,617, was shared equally between the Royal Society of Victoria, the Geological Society of London, and the University of Melbourne, which also holds a portrait by Max Meldrum.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal College of Science Magazine and Journal of the Royal School of Mines, 15, pt 5, no 124, Feb 1903
  • Report of the Twenty-Third Meeting of ANZAAS (Auckland, New Zealand), 1937, p 13
  • Science Review, 1941
  • Australian Journal of Science, 15, Feb 1953, p 127
  • Geological Society of London, Proceedings, 94 (1953), p 138
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, 9, Feb 1953, p 3
  • Royal Society of Victoria, Proceedings, 66, Dec 1954, p 137
  • Geologists' Association, Proceedings, 66, Jan 1956, p 164
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 24 Dec 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Jan 1953.

Citation details

Thomas A. Darragh, 'Skeats, Ernest Willington (1875–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skeats-ernest-willington-8440/text14835, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 3 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Ernest Willington Skeats (1875-1953), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Ernest Willington Skeats (1875-1953), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1119