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Alfred James Ewart (1872–1937)

by T. C. Chambers

This article was published:

Alfred James Ewart (1872-1937), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Alfred James Ewart (1872-1937), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1110

Alfred James Ewart (1872-1937), botanist, was born on 12 February 1872 at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, England, second of four sons of Edmund Brown Ewart and his wife Martha, née Williams. His father, of Scottish (Dumfriesshire) descent, was lecturer in chemistry and director of the chemical laboratory of the Liverpool Institute and School of Art.

Alfred was educated at the Liverpool Institute, whence he matriculated with first-class honours in the University of London examination (1888), passed the intermediate science examination (1889), and attained honours in physics (1890); he entered University College, Liverpool, graduating B.Sc. with first-class honours in botany in the University of London examination. He was appointed a demonstrator in botany at University College, Liverpool, and it was at this time that he made his earliest original researches in plant physiology, publishing two papers in the Transactions of the Liverpool Biological Society—'Observations on the vitality and germination of seeds' (1894), and 'Observations upon the pollen-tube' (1895). He was awarded an 1851 Exhibition Research scholarship, worked under the leading European plant physiologist Wilhelm Pfeffer at the University of Leipzig, and graduated Ph.D. (Leipzig) in 1896. This research on 'Assimilatory inhibition in chlorophyllous plants' was published in the Journal of the Linnean Society, London, in 1896.

An extension of the scholarship enabled him to travel to Java (Indonesia) and to visit Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Singapore. In Java he worked at the Buitenzorg (Bogor) Botanical Garden under Melchior Treub studying 'The effects of tropical insolation' (published in Annals of Botany, 1897), and 'Contact irritability' (published in 1898 in the Annals of the botanic garden, Buitenzorg). He also published studies on tropical bacteria.

Ewart returned to England in 1897, was awarded the degree of D.Sc., London, and appointed deputy professor of botany at Mason College, Birmingham (which became the University of Birmingham in 1900). From mid-1898, having matriculated at Oxford, he spent two years as an extension lecturer and research scholar there, continuing his researches on the physiology of plants, and translating into English Pfeffer's classic three-volume work Physiology of Plants. This was published between 1900 and 1906 by the Clarendon Press. At St Paul's Church of England, Oxford, on 17 December, 1898, he married Florence Maud Donaldson. In 1900 the couple returned to Birmingham, where Ewart was appointed science master at King Edward's School, and from 1902 he also held the position of lecturer in botany at the Municipal Technical School until 1904, when he was appointed lecturer in botany and plant physiology at the University of Birmingham, a post which he occupied for just over one year, before he left for Melbourne. During this year he continued his association with the department of botany and the Botanic Gardens at Oxford, graduating B.Sc. in 1906. He was awarded an Oxford D.Sc. in 1910. Possibly the most important contribution to botanical literature from this early part of his career was a book On the Physics and Physiology of Protoplasmic Streaming in Plants, published at Oxford in 1903 following a four-page abstract in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, London, 1902.

In 1906 Ewart took up the foundation chair of botany and plant physiology at the University of Melbourne, the first chair of botany in an Australasian university. In recommending Ewart's appointment, Professors Marshall Ward of Cambridge and F. W. Oliver of London stressed his extensive knowledge of physiological botany and the advantage that this would be in agricultural teaching. Further, in 1902-05 Ewart had been a tenant at Hurst Green Farm near Birmingham, and had gained some experience of commercial and experimental farming operations. He came to Melbourne with extensive teaching experience also, having already, in 1902, published a botany textbook for matriculation students. The Melbourne appointment was a joint one—by the university as professor of botany, and by the Victorian government as government botanist. This was not without its difficulties in terms of salary, small classes but heavy teaching responsibilities, increasingly crowded teaching and research conditions shared with other departments, and, especially, the geographical separation of the university and the National Herbarium in the Botanic Gardens. Ewart spent half of each day at the herbarium and the other half at the university.

For the first eight years after the chair was established, botany was not regarded as equivalent to other sciences. Although this was rectified in 1914, another seven years elapsed before the chair of botany was made a full-time appointment. Ewart's exceptional energy and his activity as a teacher and a scientific researcher (both plant physiologist and systematic botanist) contributed to his building a botany school from humble beginnings to a major department in the University of Melbourne. The present botany school main building was planned by him, and it is said that the building and equipping of it were 'supervised by him in every detail'. At the time of opening in 1929 he had built up a department from six students in 1906 to 229, from one staff member to six academics and five technical assistants.

Although primarily a physiologist, Ewart found it necessary to teach the whole field of botany, and his work as government botanist immediately involved him in a research field in which he had not previously published—plant taxonomy. Even in his first year in Melbourne he published short papers on Australian flora, both of native and introduced species, and he soon became a leading authority on Victorian flora. At the same time, several of his major works on his earlier physiological researches were also published. His series of contributions on the flora of Australia continued for most of his working life, with No 36 appearing in 1930. By 1909 he was also contributing papers on agricultural botanical problems (germination of cereals, seed testing, nitrogen fixation), and in 1909 he produced, after only five years in this country, a semi-popular book on Weeds, Poison Plants, and Naturalized Aliens of Victoria. Even after his resignation as government botanist in 1921 he maintained an active interest in Australian, and especially Victorian, flora. He had by then published, in collaboration with O. B. Davies, The Flora of the Northern Territory (1917), but undoubtedly his greatest contribution to floristic botany was his Flora of Victoria published by Melbourne University Press in 1930. His name has been commemorated in taxonomic botany by the genus Ewartia, a small group of the Compositae, and he is also remembered by a number of specific names in other genera.

Throughout his working life Ewart maintained a high level of research activity. He published some 154 scientific papers, mostly botanical, but some related to agriculture and veterinary problems. He was the author of six books, as well as the translator of Pfeffer's work. Undoubtedly, apart from this translation, the early work on protoplasmic streaming and the later work on the flora of Victoria are the most notable. However, many of his other papers represent pioneering contributions to botanical science over a wide range of topics.

Ewart was frequently consulted by governments on botanical matters, often associated with agriculture and especially with problems of stock poisoning, weed biology and forest conservation and management. He was a foundation member in 1908 and chairman in 1928-37 of the committee of management of Wilson's Promontory National Park which he often visited. Some of his services necessitated extensive travelling through inland Australia. His inquiries into stock poisoning on the overland stock route required of him, in 1924, some months in central and northern Australia at times under considerable hardship. Again, in 1927, when he investigated a disease of horses known as 'walkabout', his journey to the remote Kimberley area of north-western Australia was both arduous and demanding. His findings were published in collaboration with D. Murnane of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Bulletins Nos 36 and 50. Ewart was active in forestry and the education of foresters in Victoria from 1908. This interest probably culminated in 1925 with the publication by the Victorian Forests Commission of his Handbook of Forest Trees for Victorian Foresters. He took an interest in the establishment of the Forestry School at Creswick in 1910, and as chairman of the examination board for over twenty-nine years had a major influence on the curriculum.

Ewart was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1922. He was president of Section D (Biology) of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Melbourne in 1921, and of Section M (Botany) at the Perth meeting in 1926. When the British Association had visited Australia in 1914 he was the local secretary of the botanical section. He was also a foreign member of the Czechoslovak Botanical Society, Prague, and fellow of the Linnean Society, London, for almost forty years. In the university he held a number of important posts—dean of the faculty of science, 1920-25 and 1929; of veterinary science, 1916, 1917, 1932-37; and of agriculture, 1917-18. It has been said by some that he might have been even more involved in university government, as well as leading Australian botany, but for some protracted controversies with the administration: reputedly he had a 'somewhat choleric disposition'.

Ewart's first marriage was dissolved in 1929. On 9 February 1931 he married a 34-year-old teacher, Elizabeth Bilton. He died of coronary vascular disease at East Malvern on 12 September 1937 and was cremated, survived by his second wife and the two sons of his first marriage. His Victorian estate was sworn for probate at £7168.

Select Bibliography

  • Alfred James Ewart 1872-1937 (Melb, nd)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • Victorian Naturalist, 22 (1905-06), p 143
  • Linnean Society London, Proceedings, 1937-38, p 314
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 2 (1939), p 465
  • recollections of the Ewarts by Mrs E. M. Warwood Birmingham, (typescript, privately held).

Citation details

T. C. Chambers, 'Ewart, Alfred James (1872–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alfred James Ewart (1872-1937), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

Alfred James Ewart (1872-1937), by unknown photographer, 1914-18

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1110

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1872
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


12 September, 1937 (aged 65)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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