Year of Birth: 1945
CATALYST: a substance that brings about change in other substances without itself being changed
METALLOCENES: a special group of metallic compounds that are used as catalysts in plastics manufacture
HETEROCENES: an advanced class of catalysts used in plastics manufacture
Caribbean Icons in STI Volume 1
Dr. John Ewen has made plastics more durable, heat-proof, tear-resistant and transparent for use in many products including golf balls, food wraps, and automotive parts. One of his plastics allows oxygen to pass through, to keep salads and vegetables crisp without refrigeration.
Plastics are a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Dr. Ewen studied metallocenes as catalysts to allow plastics to be made with greater strength and flexibility. For his ground-breaking research on plastics, he received the prestigious National Medal of Technology from George Bush, President of the United States in 2002. Dr. Ewen credits his success to “a love for chemistry, a love for doing research and all credit to the metallocenes.”
John Ewen was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1945. His family was at the forefront of the tourism industry in Montego Bay. While his parents managed hotels, he would play sports on the beach, swim, fish, and ride his bicycle.
He was boarder at high school- returning home only on vacations- and seemed to be unhappy there. He failed his first chemistry test and could not understand mathematics.
At the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, he developed a great love for chemistry. His mentor was Professor Gerald “Bunny” Lalor who developed his lifelong “fascination for all aspects of chemistry” and his appreciation for research. He graduated from UWI with first class honours in 1972. In 1973, he migrated to the United States. He graduated from Tulane University, New Orleans with a doctorate in 1979.
His first job was at Exxon Mobile Chemical Company where he did research on the synthesis of plastics and pioneered work on metallocenes. He was faced with resistance to his novel research and was forced to work on weekends and holidays. He persevered, working long hours and in 1984, he published his first paper on the chemical control of plastic compounds using metallocenes.
He also started to educate the public on catalysts and the benefits of this technology. He later developed the “Ewen Symmetry Rules” which enabled plastics to be made for a diverse range of applications. Dr. Ewen retired as President of Catalyst Research Corporation, but continued to work as a consultant and started work on a new group of catalysts known as heterocenes.
His advice to young people is that: “Research is an exciting and interesting way to make a living and one must focus on the needs of the society to make an impact.” He also adds,”Pushing back the frontiers of science is highly rewarding and one can have a very satisfying life if you enjoy what you do.”
He was inducted into the Munro College Old Boys’ Association Hall of Fame for 2015 posthumously.