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Scientists of Wales: Ewart Jones

(December 01, 2016)


Professor Ewart Ray Herbert Jones, F.R.S.

16 March 1911 – 7 May 2002

ERH Jones

Ewart Ray Herbert Jones (ERH) was born in the village of Rhostyllen, near Wrexham, in a narrow strip of land between Wat’s and Offa’s dykes, names that conjure memories of past conflicts. From the front bedroom of his house he looked on the main Great Western Railway from Paddington to Birkenhead and at the huge bank of Bersham Colliery. The village was served by an electric tramway, on which Ewart travelled to the Victoria Boys Primary School in Wrexham from the age of five, having spent a brief period in the infants school in Rhostyllen. His father also used the tram regularly, to the extent that the driver, if Mr Jones was not at his regular stop, would stop at his house and ring the bell to seek an explanation for his absence. Such was personal service in those distant days!

From these early experiences of industry, coal and railway, Ewart developed an interest in science, especially how things worked and the origins of different substances, for example, the town gas which lit his house and nearby streets. His imagination was also stimulated when he and other boys ventured, doubtless without authority, near to coalpit machinery, such as the engines of the pump room and the winding gear above the shafts. As he notes in his recollections, in his early days the processes of technology were easy to visualise; these were the days before the mysterious ‘black boxes’.

In Victoria Boys School classes were about 50 pupils, the brightest sitting at the front. Nearly all teachers were women until men returned from WWI in 1919; most unusually for those days two of the teachers were married women. Quite remarkably for junior schools of that era, and largely true for modern primary schools, Victoria was well-equipped with chemistry apparatus, often used, not retained as museum specimens. So, at the age of 10, Ewart observed simple experiments such as the production of carbon dioxide from marble chips and that it turned limewater milky, as did human breath. He also observed the production of oxygen from potassium chlorate and manganese dioxide. With this early experience it is little wonder that Ewart’s academic path would be in chemistry.

Success at the 11+ examination, but not sufficiently well to win a scholarship, enabled Ewart to enter Grove Park County School for Boys in Wrexham in 1922. In general terms, the biggest shock to him in the secondary school was to be taught wholly by men, most of whom had fought in the Great War. The military associations were very much in evidence, with several teachers initially being known by their military rank. The science teaching was greatly assisted by the provision of well-designed and equipped laboratories including a tiered lecture theatre. In his last year Ewart gave a lecture in this theatre on Electrons and X-rays; his demonstration depended on equipment borrowed from a science company and the local hospital. Chemistry and physics were strong in the school, but biology was non-existent; botany was provided in the neighbouring Grove Park Girls School.

After gaining a scholarship at 18+ Ewart became a university student at Bangor, ultimately choosing chemistry as his main pursuit. He graduated with first-class honours in 1932 and a diploma in Education in 1933, the latter indicating an intention (or insurance) to go into school teaching. But he was invited to do research on a two-year studentship of £100 a year. He gained his Ph.D in 1936 and, despite having an assured place at Oxford, he joined Professor I.M. Heilbron, F.R.S., at Manchester. Thus began a life-long professional association that proved very fruitful in pioneering developments in organic chemistry, the discipline that focuses on natural materials, all containing carbon, often in association with hydrogen. Together they moved to Imperial College, London from where Heilbron was seconded to war work, thus leaving Ewart at a young age virtually in charge of the department from 1941 to 1945. Ewart’s indifferent health did not enable him to undertake formal military work, but he became heavily involved in the Gas Identification Services, advising on poisonous gases.

When the war ended many scientists returned to their posts, after secondment to war service, and university departments began to rebuild. The time was appropriate for ERH to seek leadership positions outside Imperial College and independently of Heilbron. In 1947, at the age of only 36, he was appointed Professor of Organic Chemistry at Manchester, a position of great distinction. One of his supporters described him as “quite first-class and growing steadily in stature”. In his new position he revealed rare skill as a leader of his team, always giving encouragement to others to make their mark; the years were very productive. In addition ERH showed himself to be adept as an administrator knowledgeable in and committed to general university procedures.

Reaction scheme of the Jones oxidation
Reaction scheme of the 'Jones oxidation
an organic reaction for the oxidation of primary and secondary alcohols
to carboxylic acids and ketones, respectively;
named after its discoverer, Ewart Jones


With the Manchester department in good shape he was persuaded to take up the challenge of reviving the Dyson Perrins Chemistry Laboratory in Oxford University; he started in the Waynflete Chair in February 1955. This was no mean challenge because of the generally poor condition of the laboratories and of teaching and research programmes. He remained in Oxford for the rest of his career, retiring in 1978. He gave unstintingly of his time to promote chemistry as a career and as a field of interest to the general public. He served on numerous committees, including ones for advising the government of the day, not least for the promotion of links between chemistry in academia and industry. He held many position of distinction such as the first president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. In addition to his initial degrees of B.Sc and Ph.D from the University of Wales, he received a host of honorary awards of various organisations. For the excellence of his academic work he was elected a Fellow of the Royal society in 1950 and for his managerial and general service he was knighted in 1963.

It is possible to gain an insight into the nature of his academic work by quoting from notes that he made of conversations with his portrait painter.

Life is essentially organic chemistry made possible by billions of organic compounds both in us and everywhere in the living world. We seek to know what they are, why they are there and how they are made and operate.

Grass and seaweed are green with chlorophyll, which absorbs light and enables plants to convert carbon dioxide from the air into plant building materials. Blood is red with haemoglobin which absorbs oxygen from the air in our lungs and distributes it around our bodies.

An example that has always fascinated me is cholesterol and its role in heart disease; at first it was identified as a constituent of gallstones but came to be recognised as a vital factor in the functioning of nervous tissue, especially the brain and spinal chord. I have always been excited by research into natural products, the discovery of vitamins A and vitamin D, a compound of plant growth in cabbage, the oil in the peel of limes and finding a route to the important steroid cortisone.

Neville Evans, December 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     Elwyn Hughes; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2016


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