Stillwell, Frank Leslie

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(b. Hawthorn, near Melbourne, Australia, 27 June 1888; d. Melbourne, 8 February 1963)


The seventh of eight children and youngest son of Alfred Stillwell and Mary Eliza Townsend, Stillwell came of Huguenot stock settled in Australia since 1855. Both his father and paternal grandfather were printers. Although troubled by poor health as a youth, Stillwell did well at school and entered the University of Melbourne with an exhibition in 1907 to study science and mining engineering. He graduated B.Sc. in 1911 with first-class honors in geology, advanced to M.Sc. in 1913, and in 1916 gained the D.Sc. Stillwell never married. He devoted his life largely to geological research and held no continuing appointment until he was almost forty years of age.

In 1911 Stillwell joined the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–1914) led by Sir Douglas Mawson. He spent some twelve months as a geologist in Adelie Land with responsibility for a sledging party that surveyed sixty miles of coast east of Cape Denison. Relieved early in 1913, he returned to Melbourne with collections for his doctoral study. Stillwell’s report on Adelie Land, published in 1918, set out what is arguably his most original contribution to geological thought, the concept of metamorphic differentiation as the means whereby during metamorphism contrasted materials arise from an initially homogeneous parent. At the time, however, his rather individual treatment of metamorphic phenomena won little support among petrologists. Eskola’s critical essay of 1932, “On the Principles of Metamorphic Differentiation” (Bulletin de la Commission Géolagique de Finlande, 16 [1932], 68–77), did not even mention Stillwell. Later writers have made some amends.

Stillwell enlisted in 1916 but was withdrawn from the army to assist the Australian Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry in a study of auriferous quartz reefs at Bendigo, Victoria. These reefs, among them the famous “saddle reefs,” were then regarded as fissure fillings. Stillwell found that many had formed by replacement in favored sites and in three bulletins (1917–1919) presented detailed evidence and a revised strategy for exploration. From 1919 to 1921 Stillwell was attached to a group led by E. C. Andrews of the Geological Survey of New South Wales examining the silver-lead-zinc mining field of Broken Hill. His controversial report on the petrology of the lode and its environs appeared in Andrews’ memoir of 1922.

After brief employment as a company geologist at Bendigo, Stillwell set out in 1922, at his own expense, on a tour of mining fields and universities in South Africa, Europe, and North America. He was about to go oil-prospecting in New Guinea late in 1923 when the offer of a research fellowship at the University of Melbourne gave him a chance to introduce to Australia the techniques for reflected-light microscopy of opaque minerals acquired during his travels. His discovery, for instance, that much of the silver in Broken Hill galena occurs in minute inclusions of dyscrasite belongs to the period of the 1924 fellowship. Such work showed the relevance of mineragraphic study to the Australian mineral industry and established Stillwell’s reputation as both pioneer and leader in the field.

In 1927 the newly formed Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, now CSIRO) appointed Stillwell its research petrologist but soon agreed to his secondment through 1928 to the government of Western Australia for a comprehensive study of the Kalgoorlie gold field, then in decline. Apart from its scientific value, Stillwell’s work, published in 1929, led to the resurgence of exploration and mining at Kalgoorlie during the 1930’s. His notable study of Kalgoorlie telluride minerals followed in 1931.

On his return to Melbourne in 1929 Stillwell assumed responsibility for the CSIR Mineragraphic Investigations Section; he remained in charge until his official retirement in June 1953. Stillwell’s laboratory, housed with the geology department of Melbourne University, where from time to time he gave courses in his fields of expertise, became a scientific service center for the Australian mineral industry. Few Australian ore deposits escaped study by Stillwell or his staff, most prominent among them being A. B. Edwards, his successor as officer-in-charge. The 540 reports issued by the section in Stillwell’s time are witness to their activity.

In retirement Stillwell kept busy. He worked on at the laboratory and for some years served as a consultant to industry at Broken Hill, the subject in 1959 of his last major paper. By then syngenetic models of ore genesis were gaining favor there but Stillwell staunchly defended his epigenetic view. He was identified with the conservatives of science, of the sort who long ago thought his ideas radical. Yet throughout Stillwell remained his own man, ready to trust his observations and judgment. Many thought him diffident but no one suggested Stillwell lacked the courage of his convictions.

Stillwell received many awards and honors for his contributions to mineral science and the mining industry. In 1952 he became a correspondent of the Geological Society of America. He was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1954, the year the Australian Academy of Science held its first elections and admitted him a fellow. The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1958 marked his seventieth birthday by publishing the F. L. Stillwell Anniversary Volume of papers by colleagues and friends. The Stillwell Award of the Geological Society of Australia now commemorates one who was not only an active supporter of that and other societies but also their generous benefactor. Stillwell Island in Antarctica and the rare-earth borosilicate mineral stillwellite are named after him.


Stillwell’s published works are listed in the memorials by G. Baker in Geological Society of America: Bulletin, 75 (1964), P45–P51, and by E. S. Hills in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 1 (1966), 58–66. Sir Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard, 2 vols. (London, 1915), provides more information about Still-well’s role in Antarctica. Unpublished letters from C. E. Tilley to W. R. Browne, in the writer’s possession, have also been used in preparing this essay.

T. G. Vallance