100 years of engineering excellence

In its 100-year history, no one has had more impact on chemical engineering at UQ than the late Robert John ‘Gus’ Wiles AM.

For four decades, Wiles was considered the heart and soul of chemical engineering at UQ, and his legacy will help to ensure the University remains one of the world’s most influential in the field for many years to come.

Head of School Professor Peter Halley said Wiles’s dedication was unmatched and his approach to education was ahead of his time.

“Gus acknowledged the importance of a well-rounded education – one which included international education, vacation work opportunities and industry networking,” Halley said.

“He encouraged his students to undertake semesters abroad at
international universities and broaden their engineering knowledge and skills – something for which he often provided personal financial assistance.”

The Robert ‘Gus’ Wiles Scholarship Endowment Fund was established in 2010 and has been generously supported by alumni and the community ever since.

The fund provides scholarships of up to $5000 to encourage and support meritorious chemical engineering students, who undertake an approved overseas exchange in years three or four of their undergraduate program.

“Gus acknowledged the importance of a well-rounded education – one which included international education, vacation work opportunities and industry networking."

Professor Peter Halley

Wiles was proud of, and humbled by, the support and left one final gift for the School after his death in 2014 – a bequest of $50,000 to the fund. More than 250 alumni have now supported the fund and Halley said there had been a recent push to endow the scholarship.

“The philanthropic contributions of our younger graduates is quite remarkable. One of our 2015 graduates recently donated $1000, which is extremely generous for a 22-year-old who has only just started their career,” he said.

Through the Robert ‘Gus’ Wiles Scholarship, chemical engineering student Anh Ngo was able to study at the University of California, Berkeley, during the university’s fall semester last year.

Ngo said the scholarship not only allowed her the opportunity to study at the top public university in the world, but also gave her a fresh perspective on life.

“I gained long-term personal and educational development. It tested my resilience, and I developed independent opinions,” she said.

“It increased my awareness and adoption of alternative, multifaceted approaches to learning, and enriched my interest in global issues.”

UQ celebrated 100 years of chemical engineering at a centenary gala dinner at Brisbane City Hall in November this year. The event, hosted by Halley and radio and television personality Bernie Hobbs, was one of the biggest gatherings of chemical engineering professionals in Queensland’s history.

Watch a video from the gala dinner below or click here to see photos.

A chemical engineering degree, then known as a Bachelor of Applied Science in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, was first offered at UQ in 1916 – decades before any other Australian university.

One of UQ’s original four professors and first president of the University’s Professorial Board, Professor Bertram Dillon Steele, was influential in establishing the degree.

He envisaged a course that could serve all of Australia, including studies assisting in the development of industries new to the country.

The four-year degree was part of the Walter and Eliza Hall School of Applied Chemistry, which opened in 1917.

Of the few students who enrolled in the course in 1917, Ernest Stewart Edmiston, was the only one to complete all the requirements, graduating in 1921.

UQ chemical engineering students in 1963. 

UQ chemical engineering students in 1963. 

Besides the study of unit operations and processes (together with the appropriate science foundation of mathematics, chemistry and physics), the course included first-year geology with economic geology and physical metallurgy, as well as civil, mechanical and electrical engineering subjects.

The course also included areas of economics, law and psychology.

Today, the School sets a benchmark for educational change at a national and international level. It has a five-star rating in the QS World University Rankings by subject and is ranked as one of the top 50 of its kind globally.

The School boasts more than 600 undergraduate students (39 per cent of whom are female), more than 180 PhD students, and is a recognised national and international leader in chemical engineering with excellent fundamental and industry-applied research.

For more information about the School of Chemical Engineering, visit chemeng.uq.edu.au.

A century of leadership

1910: Professor Bertram Dillon Steele is appointed Head of Chemistry at UQ.

1916: A course leading to a bachelor degree, including ‘chemical engineering’ in its title, is first offered at UQ.

1921: Ernest Stewart Edmiston is the first student to graduate from a Bachelor of Applied Science in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering degree at UQ.

1950: School of Applied Chemistry moves from George Street to St Lucia. The St Lucia building is named after Professor Steele.

1950: Valeria Blakey (nee Blagonravoff) becomes the first woman to graduate in chemical engineering at UQ.

1959: ‘Gus’ Wiles graduates from UQ.

1966: Lecturer Jim Howarth is awarded a PhD, the first in chemical engineering at UQ.

1967: Wiles begins working as a demonstrator in chemical engineering.

1975: Sir Russell Drysdale opens the new Chemical Engineering Building, now known as the Don Nicklin Building.

2000: Wiles retires as a Senior Lecturer at UQ.

2009: The UQ School of Chemical Engineering is established after the UQ School of Engineering (which incorporated individual disciplinary departments) becomes the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology.

2014: Wiles is advised in November that he has been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AO). He dies in December.