My role in the early years of the UQ Mining and Metallurgy Department

June McNicol20160819_100601

I am probably unique in being the only woman in the world to have started up a department in Metallurgy. This is how it happened.

I was born in England in 1926 and was lucky to attend a girls’ school where it was assumed that girls could and should do anything they wanted, so when I gained an entrance to Newnham College, Cambridge, I had no hesitation in going up to read Chemistry to become another Mme Curie. I found I had to take other subjects including Mineralogy and Metallurgy about which I knew nothing. Chemistry turned out not to be as exciting as I had hoped, so I concentrated on Metallurgy. I learned that Physical Metallurgy was the science of the properties of metals and alloys and how they were related to their internal structures – why steel is stronger than lead, why cast iron is brittle and why aluminium doesn’t corrode. In Metallurgy, examination was mostly by observing the structure of a carefully prepared specimen under a microscope, which I found I was good at, and I enjoyed the continually changing patterns of microstructures, many of which had rich aesthetic values.

After I graduated, I joined a research institute in London, but I didn’t do much as the staff member I had been assigned to had been poached by a rival organisation due to the acute shortage of skilled people after the war. At the end of six months I married an Australian Demonstrator from the Department of Physics at the University of Queensland who I had met when he was studying at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and we came out to Brisbane in 1949.

I immediately investigated the UQ Engineering Department in George St and found that the Professor of Engineering, Hawken, had died and the Senate had decided to split the Faculty into four departments, Mechanical, Civil, Electrical and Chemical and add a new one, Mining and Metallurgy. Each had a new Head of Department. A Professor of Mining and Metallurgy, Frank White, who was working out a contract in Malaya, had been appointed. Mansergh Shaw, the Mechanical Engineering Professor, who was also English, said he would put me on the staff roll as I could come in useful. So, for a year, I was a sort of general dogsbody, handling enquiries about casting, examining welds for aircraft welders and learning quite a lot.

Eventually Frank White arrived and he must have been dismayed to find his only staff was a totally inexperienced woman. However, he didn’t say anything (to me, at least) and set about transforming an old wooden Industrial Chemistry building into a Mining and Metallurgy centre. He said he had already appointed two lecturers to run the Metallurgy course, as he knew nothing about Metallurgy, so I wondered what he had in mind for me.

Whatever it was, it didn’t matter, because I came back from holidays in January 1951, when the Department was due to start, and found that both the lecturers were not coming – they had been poached! I imagine he had a great struggle over the decision, but he took the only course open to him and asked me to launch the courses for second and third year engineers for which I would be promoted to Assistant Lecturer. I was stunned, as I lacked experience and confidence, couldn’t drive a car, had only used a telephone a handful of times and had never spoken in public. I said to my husband, ‘I can’t do this’ to which he briskly replied, ‘Of course you can!’ So with that backing, I started. I had six weeks to prepare lectures and practicals for 120 second year students. I had no equipment apart from a few student microscopes, and although the Mechanical Engineering workshop was willing to make equipment, they needed detailed drawings, whereas I could only do a sketch on the back of an envelope. There didn’t seem to be anything suitable in Brisbane and I never found anyone who knew anything about Physical Metallurgy, so I was really on my own. I sent frantic aerograms to scientific firms in England, only to get a surface mail letter two months later to say that all enquiries had to be made through their agents in Melbourne, so I gave that idea away!

Fortunately, the syllabus was very similar to the Cambridge one. My old lecture notes were invaluable, but I still had to write the lectures out. The practicals were a different matter. For one of them I needed brass which was not available in Brisbane, so I had to cast my own using a very unsuitable assay furnace, and for heat treatment I made a small tube furnace. Then I needed a thermocouple to measure the temperature, but as there was no-one in George St who could weld the bead, I had to go to the Medical School at Herston to a welder there. It took all day as I went out in the University truck and had to wait for it to bring me back in the afternoon. In one of the experiments I had to deform my home-made brass by uniform amounts by rolling, but as there was no rolling mill available, I resorted to putting it on the concrete floor and bashing it with a sledgehammer. Surprisingly it worked reasonably well!

Even working over the weekends, I was barely ready for the beginning of term, and on the first day, with some trepidation, I walked into a lecture room full of male students only a few years younger than I was, and some ex-servicemen who were considerably older. Somehow I got through, and I never had any problems with unsuitable behaviour.

I got 15 students twice a week for practical classes, so I had devised three experiments for each day. As there were no demonstrators in those days, I spent the afternoon rushing from one experiment to another, mostly to prevent the students from wrecking my flimsy equipment!

Well, I managed to get through the year with a few extra lectures for second and third year mining students (they were actual mining engineers just ‘topping up’ their knowledge.) I set the exam paper, marked it and was very pleased to find that my students did as well as those of other more experienced engineering lecturers. Then I had a long Christmas holiday! The second year was much easier – the lectures were all settled, so I spent my time improving the practical equipment. By this time bits of equipment were drifting in from the UK so the practicals were in much better shape.

One small complication was that the Korean War was raging and 10% of young men, including university students were doing their National Service. Their training didn’t finish until the end of the first three weeks of the first term, so to fulfil our obligations to them, the lectures for that period had to be written in full with diagrams, roneoed and sent off to them in their army camp. I have no idea if they ever read them, but I’m sure they had better things to do.

One day Frank White said, “I’ve just got some money to equip an analytical chemistry laboratory. You’ll look after that, won’t you?” Well, what could I say? I hauled out my old school and university chemical analysis books, decided what elements we would be most interested in, and ordered masses of chemicals and glassware. Selby’s Chemical Supplies loved me, and the rep. was always around in the department. Fortunately I left before I actually had to do anything about it, but when I returned many years later, there was a fully equipped laboratory with a fully qualified chemist and an assistant. However, I did recognise some of the bottles I had bought, still sitting on the shelf unopened.

Another day in 1950 Frank White said, “I’ve just been talking to the Minister for Mines and he tells me there’s an old silver mine at Indooroopilly we might like to use”. Such was the small beginning of what is now a very large project, which fortunately I was not involved in.

Towards the end of 1952 Jim Waring, a metallurgist with some pre-war industrial experience, arrived, and at the end of the year, Frank White said that now he had a ‘proper lecturer’ I could revert to being a dogsbody, so I resigned and spent the following years raising four children.

Eighteen years later, Frank White went to McGill University in Canada to organise their Metallurgy Department, a job for which he was well-qualified, and as my youngest child was at high school, I thought it was time to return. I was welcomed with open arms, because this was a time when universities were expanding wildly, and again, there was a shortage of trained staff. In the intervening years the Mining and Metallurgy Department had moved out to a purpose-built department at St Lucia and the Metallurgy section had three full-time lecturers, lots of research students and plenty of equipment.

By this time I had a lot of social interests, so I only went back as a part-time demonstrator. My first job was to reorganise the practicals that had been in the reluctant hands of research students doing occasional demonstrating. I really enjoyed teaching small groups of students the mysteries of metallography, casting, mechanical testing, welding and heat treatment, especially as there was a sprinkling of women who took it very seriously.

I continued this satisfying life until I decided to retire in 1993. I never went back to the department because I had moved on to another career that I still practise, that of book restoration.

The question often arises whether I was discriminated against, being a woman. Certainly I was the only woman on the Engineering Faculty staff while I was there. No-one said anything, not to me at least, but was it just coincidence that the first departmental photographs were of Frank White and his mining students, and it was not until Jim Waring arrived and I had left that he was included in the 1953 photograph? I will never know!

June McNicol, OAM, BA, MA Cantab.