Wednesday 29 June 2011

Notable University Figures (1): Sir James Alfred Ewing

This is the first in a regular feature in which we will explore the lives of some of the outstanding individuals associated with the University of Dundee and its predecessor institutions. It is fitting to begin by looking at the life a very eminent figure who was born and raised in Dundee and who was associated with University College in its earliest days - Professor Sir James Alfred Ewing.

Professor James Alfred Ewing 1889
James Alfred Ewing was born in 1855 and was the son of the Reverend James Ewing. The senior Ewing had been minister of St Andrew’s Church, but left the Church of Scotland at the great disruption of 1843 to found St Andrew’s Free Church. James Alfred Ewing received his schooling at Dundee’s West End Academy and High School before obtaining a scholarship to study for a degree in engineering at the University of Edinburgh. His academic career began in 1878 when he was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Physics at the newly established University of Tokyo. While in Japan he researched earthquakes and developed new types of seismometer. He also gave the name to the phenomenon of hysteresis.

The Principal and professors at University College Dundee, 1889. Ewing is 4th from the left.

In 1883 Ewing returned to Dundee as the first holder of the chair of Mechanical Engineering at University College, Dundee. While at UCD he became known for his social work as well as his research. He was horrified by living conditions in his home city and was involved in schemes to try to improve them, notably taking a leading role in work to improve the city’s sewage system.

The Ewing Building at the University of Dundee
Ewing left Dundee in 1890 to take a chair at Cambridge and thereafter enjoyed a highly successful and varied career. After Cambridge he took the post of Director of Naval Education at the Admiralty and during the First World War he was head of the famed Room 40 specialist unit involved in deciphering German coded naval messages. In 1916 he became Principal of the University of Edinburgh, a post he held until 1929. Ewing was knighted in 1911 and died in 1935.

Archive Services hold a series of letters written by Ewing while he was at University College as well as pamphlets either by or about him (UR-SF 44). There is also material about his time at Dundee in a number of the College records of the period. Today Ewing’s name lives on at the University through the Ewing Building which was erected in 1954 and named in his honour.

Kenneth Baxter

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