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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stillwell, Frank Leslie (1888–1963)

by Arthur A. Wilcock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Frank Leslie Stillwell (1888-1963), by Frank Hurley, c1911

Frank Leslie Stillwell (1888-1963), by Frank Hurley, c1911

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 36811

Frank Leslie Stillwell (1888-1963), geologist, was born on 27 June 1888 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, seventh of eight children of London-born Alfred Stillwell, printer, and his Victorian wife Mary Eliza, née Townsend. Alfred had arrived in Victoria with his parents in 1855. His father, John, was by 1868 one of the principals of a printing and publishing business to which, in due course, Frank's father and brother succeeded. Frank was educated at Auburn State School, Hawthorn College and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1911; M.Sc., 1913) where two older sisters, Effie (M.B., B.S., 1901) and Florence (M.Sc., 1903), had preceded him. He graduated with first-class honours, having won in every year the exhibitions and scholarships open to candidates in geology. At the end of 1911 he went as geologist with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by (Sir) Douglas Mawson. Stillwell was a member of the main base party at Commonwealth Bay and leader of two sledging parties which did topographic and geological work to the east for about sixty miles (97 km) along the coast. He returned to Australia in March 1913. His study, 'The metamorphic rocks of Adelie Land' published in the expedition's reports, earned him a D.Sc. (1916) from the University of Melbourne.

In 1914-15 Stillwell taught mineralogy at the University of Adelaide. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916, but was withdrawn to assist the Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry. In 1919-21 he worked as a geologist at Broken Hill, New South Wales, and Bendigo, Victoria. A visit in 1922-23 to the mining fields in Europe, South Africa and North America led him into the emerging field of mineragraphy, the study of polished surfaces of mineral aggregates under a reflecting microscope as a means of determining the identity and relationships of the minerals.

Appointed to a research fellowship at the University of Melbourne under Professor E. W. Skeats, in 1927 Stillwell became research petrologist for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and did outstanding work on the Kalgoorlie goldfield, Western Australia. He built no bureaucratic empire: his first assistant, Dr Austin Edwards, was not appointed until 1935 and they had cramped laboratory space in the geology department at the university until the opening of an adjacent building a decade later. The creation of a mineragraphic section and the conversion of C.S.I.R. to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization involved changes in title without affecting the character of his work or the respect in which he was held by the mining industry. He retired from the C.S.I.R.O. in 1953. Many honours were conferred upon him. In 1951 the Royal Society of New South Wales awarded him its (William Branwhite) Clarke medal. In 1952 he was made correspondent of the Geological Society of America. In 1954 he was appointed O.B.E. and elected fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In 1958 the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, which had awarded him a medal in 1948, honoured his seventieth birthday by publishing the Stillwell Anniversary Volume. Other honours included two of the less usual: Mawson named Stillwell Island in Antarctica after him, and a new mineral was named Stillwellite.

Stillwell's service to science extended beyond his special field, especially in his lifelong work for the Royal Society of Victoria which he joined in 1910. From 1929, when he became honorary secretary, until his death he served in various positions including that of president (1953-54), and it was to the society that the largest of his bequests was made.

Stillwell died, unmarried, at Richmond on 8 February 1963 and was cremated. Looking back on Antarctic days, Charles Laseron, one of Stillwell's sledging companions, remarked that some persons invite nicknames while others do not, and that Stillwell—though a fine chap and popular with everybody—was called Frank and nothing else. That his contemporaries found in Stillwell as a young man a reserve which they respected was no surprise to those who knew him later. He was not cold, simply quiet. With the spoken word, he was economical; with the publicly spoken word, diffident. His silences ranged from the warmly approving to the firmly dissenting. A portrait by Orlando Dutton hangs in the Stillwell Room of the Graduate Union of the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Melbourne Gazette, 19, 1963
  • Melbourne Graduate, 15, no 10, Dec 1964
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 1, no 1, Dec 1966
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Feb 1963.

Citation details

Arthur A. Wilcock, 'Stillwell, Frank Leslie (1888–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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