Bronwyn Jane Adams (1950-1999): the first female chemical engineer to graduate from Monash University 1971

This blog is intended to focus on family history, and generally stops at my grandparents and their siblings. But every now and then, family history collides with the present… and specifically, with my career in engineering….

I am a chemical engineer by training, and have a Bachelors degree and a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Since graduating as a chemical engineer in 1993, I have worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing, other industries and universities, including Monash University in Victoria. There has been a fairly consistent theme of being either the only woman in the room, or one of a handful of women – with the notable exception of Merck USA which was 50% women and an absolute haven. Diversity in engineering is an ongoing conversation and a work in progress, and although chemical engineering is statistically a bit ahead of some other disciplines, there are still only 13% women in engineering (all disciplines) in the Australian workforce. As a result, female pioneers and success stories are still widely shared and discussed, and their achievements remain relevant even today.

One such pioneer was Bronwyn Adams, who was born in 1950. She was the very 1st female graduate from the new Chemical Engineering course at Monash University which started in 1963. She graduated in 1971 and was the very first female chemical engineering graduate in Victoria.  Bronwyn’s father was Peter Adams, also a chemical engineer who worked for ICI. Originally Bronwyn was planning to study at Melbourne University, but when she heard that Professor Owen Potter was moving from Melbourne to Monash to start a new chemical engineering degree, she decided she would come also, and she enrolled in her new degree in 1963. 

According to her family, she was an excellent student and quietly determined. In part- she probably had to be to prove herself as the only woman in the class.   When she graduated in 1971, she could not get a job – she received repeated rejection letters saying the company “did not employ women” and her Mum, Jean Adams, remembers a huge pile of them, which the family kept for many years. She got her break at Altona Petrochemical Company in 1972, and built her career in chemical engineering from there. Her new role at APC was notable enough to rate a mention in the “Monash Reporter” in 1972:

Bronwyn then moved to the University of Melbourne, eventually as a senior manager in science and education faculties. She was Executive Manager of the School of Chemistry from 1991 to 1993 and then took on an even more senior role of General Manager Faculty of Education from 1993 to 1996. After this, she developed a new career as a consultant, working in diverse technical and organisational development assignments for a few years before she tragically died suddenly of an aneurism in 1999 at age 48. A large obituary was published in The Age, cowritten by her sister Sue Coffey, and a memorial scholarship was established in her name at Melbourne University shortly afterwards. She appears in the Encyclopaedia of Australian Science.  

Obituary for Bronwyn Adams in The Age, 9 April 1999

I had heard of Bronwyn Adams many times when I worked at Monash for over a decade (from 2006-2016)– her name and achievements came up in regularly at alumni events. I have met some of Bronwyn’s classmates and colleagues, and she was featured on the Monash Engineering 50 years webpage (link no longer working) along with the pioneering women in other disciplines of engineering at Monash. At one stage Paul Taranto from Qenos, who worked with Bronwyn at APC, had proposed establishing a new Joint Victorian IChemE/Engineers Australia award for women in chemical engineering and naming it after Bronwyn Adams, but unfortunately we didn’t know how to get in touch with her family to ask permission…..


Fast forward to 2019, and I was looking through some information about my Dad’s family history, including a letter from 1993 written by my great Aunty Dorothy “Dorrie” Waddell b1902 when I first moved to Melbourne from Queensland for my first chemical engineering job in the mid 1990s. Dorrie was the older sister of my grandmother Amy Pat Waddell b1907. The letter was actually replying to my mother, graciously offering to meet with me when I was in Melbourne. It is actually quite a charmingly old fashioned introduction letter, carrying on a long established link as my father used to visit Dorrie when he first moved to Melbourne as well. My mother made a photocopy with the details (and you can see her annotation to make sure I was clear on the family link in the bottom right corner) to give to me with the address etc. I have slightly truncated the middle third of the two page letter, as there was some information about medical procedures and living people that I didnt want to include on the blog. In the letter, Great Aunty Dorrie invited me to come and visit her and mentioned that her granddaughter – Bronwyn Adams – was also a chemical engineer.  I knew immediately that this had to be the same person and was amazed at the family connection, and frustrated that I hadn’t known that Bronwyn was my 2nd cousin until now! I didnt meet Bronwyn when I visited Dorrie, but in 2019, I was able to met Bronwyn’s mum Jean (a few weeks before she died at 93 years old) and her sister Sue — and they generously shared their stories of Bronwyn’s life and career when we met.

Letter from Dorrie Waddell to my mother, mentioning her granddaughter Bronwyn Adams is a chemical Engineer.

Left: Bronwyn Adams at a Monash Alumni function in 1992 [2]; Middle: Pat and Dorrie and Jean and family at Luna Park, ~1930; Right: Pat and Dorrie with my younger sisters, about 1980.

The Waddell family had 7 sisters and 3 brothers, and it turns out that there is a high proportion of female engineers in the Waddell family descendants. It’s a large family and I haven’t tracked down all of my 2nd cousins but there are female scientists and engineers among the descendants of the other Waddell siblings as well, in contrast to the other (equally large) branches of my family tree. The original Waddell sisters all convey the same general sense of strong, independent women finding their own path and though life and career (if this option was open to them).  A rare photo of my grandmother Amy Patricia Waddell all dressed up at around 8 years old certainly captures her defiant spirit!

Bronwyn was the 1st female graduate of Chemical Engineering at Monash and in Victoria, the first female engineer at APC, and was a very early pioneer of chemical engineering in nationally. Despite the passage of 50 years, women are still breaking into previously unchartered territory, including me: I was the first female chemical engineering academic staff member at Monash in 2006 (Cordelia Selomulya started 2 weeks later, so we jointly were the first female academics in the department). I was also the first female Head of Department in the Monash Faculty of Engineering (2012-2016) and first female Professor of Chemical Engineering at Monash in 2014.

As a result of discovering his family link, Bronwyn now has two scholarships set up in her name: the first is the pre-existing Uni Melbourne Memorial award supporting staff development and leadership; and the second was set up in 2020 by myself at Monash University, named jointly after both of us, to support high achieving female engineers with leadership potential.

THE BRONWYN ADAMS AND KAREN HAPGOOD AWARD

The Bronwyn Adams and Karen Hapgood Award is awarded annually to the highest achieving female undergraduate in Chemical Engineering. Bronwyn Adams was the first female chemical engineering graduate from Monash (1971) and in the state of Victoria. Professor Karen Hapgood was the first female staff member (2006) and Head of Department (2012-2016). Bronwyn and Karen are related - their grandmothers were sisters.
Award:
The prize consists of a monetary amount of $1,000 and an award certificate. It is presented to the successful candidate at a ceremony. The award is provided by the generosity of Professor Karen Hapgood who was the former Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, a valued and much respected staff member of Monash University, and a leader for women in Chemical Engineering.
Selection:
The selection criteria reflects the interests of both Bronwyn Adams and Karen Hapgood – their interest in the professional development of young women and their passion for a diverse STEM community. The award is granted to the best female graduating student based on their Honours Weighted Average (HWA), their original contributions to chemical engineering research, and their program leadership including student teams, regardless of the length of time it took them to complete the course or if they have failed a unit at any point.

I find the link between the Waddell family and women in chemical engineering fascinating, and I am proud to think that I am related to Bronwyn Adams and her achievements.

Sources:

[1] University of Melbourne Bronwyn Jane Adams Memorial Award. This award was established in memory of Bronwyn Adams, a former member of the University who passed away suddenly in 1999 at the age of 48. Ms Adams was widely acknowledged as an exemplar of best practice as a manager and was passionate about the development of staff at all levels of the organisation. This award recognises outstanding professional staff by providing financial assistance to enable them to pursue a worthwhile activity in relation to their work. The proposed activity must be linked to a specific project or outcome that benefits the University and can include leadership, project or program development activities. https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/awards/university-of-melbourne-awards-for-excellence/categories/the-melbourne-professional-excellence-awards/bronwyn-jane-adams-memorial-award

[2] Bronwyn Adams at a Monash Alumni function, 1992. Monash Archives, https://adm.monash.edu/records-archives/archives/cgi-alias/monpix?IMAGE_NUMBER=8465

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