John Alexander Ewen was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1945, the son of James Alexander Ewen and Beryl Isabel Ewen. He was born into a Munro family, as his father and three uncles, as well as his older brother, attended Munro before him, and his father taught mathematics at Munro for a short while.
He was also born into a family of leading Jamaican hoteliers, as his parents owned and operated the landmark Casa Blanca hotel in Montego Bay, which in turn had been inherited from his paternal grandparents, Rupert Mortimer Ewen and May Belle Amy Ewen. Grandmother Ewen, known as “Ma” Ewen, was the patriarch of Montego Bay’s fledgling tourist industry in the early 1900’s, and had the foresight to open a hotel next to Doctor’s Cave beach on what is now the Hip Strip, entertaining the likes of Errol Flynn even before Montego Bay had an airport.
He never entered the family business, but seemed to have picked up a few tricks of Jamaican hospitality, as he met both of his wives while they were vacationing in Jamaica. As a child, he enjoyed resort life by spending his days on the beach, swimming, fishing, and riding his bicycle.
He was apparently reluctant to give up this carefree lifestyle, and so when he was shipped off to Munro College at nine years old in 1954 to join his older brother, it did not go very well. Unlike the quieter William, who went on to become a leading accountant and head of finance for the Pan-Jamaican Group of Companies, he excelled in mischief a bit more than in sports or academics.
The future leading chemist did indeed encounter the future great chemistry teacher, but in those days, one started chemistry in 4th form, and so he had only two years with Steven Harle, who then was a new young teacher, not yet at the peak of his powers. “Staggy” still managed to have an influence, though, as young Ewen got interested in chemistry then, and found what Mr. Harle taught him to be useful for years afterwards.
He did ok at chemistry and maths, liked cross-country running, and dabbled in cricket and hockey, but his performance overall was no better than average, and so he left Munro after 5 years and ended up finishing high school in a place even colder than Munro, Stanstead College in Quebec, Canada. He continued his interest in chemistry there, along with picking up a bit of French, and graduated in 1963.
He came back to Jamaica and to the University of the West Indies, and there, the interest in chemistry sparked at Munro became a passion, and he finally started to do well in school. He was influenced by Professor Gerald Lalor, who impressed upon him the importance of research to society, and inspired him to develop a lifelong fascination for all aspects of chemistry. He graduated with first class honours in chemistry in 1972, and years later, when he received a certain prestigious award, Professor Lalor was the first person he contacted.
He said he did not suddenly wake up one morning and decide to do well, he simply got interested in chemistry and wanted to pursue a career in that field, and with some of his grandmother’s vision, he persisted even though he was advised he could not make a living from it. Most of the major decisions in his life were made for love, usually love of work or love of a woman, and so he left Jamaica to be with his second wife, Pamela in 1973. In 1979, he received his doctorate in inorganic chemistry from Tulane University in New Orleans.
The Global Impact Researcher
His first job was at Exxon Mobile Chemical Company, where he conducted research on the synthesis of plastics and pioneered the study of metallocenes. Metallocenes are a group of catalysts, and in layman terms, as the name suggests, are used to produce plastics with elements of metal in them. The process involves mimicking the way nature incorporates traces of metals in organic molecules, as with iron in the haemoglobin of red blood cells, and magnesium in the chlorophyll of green plants.
John Ewen never invented metallocenes, any more than he invented plastic, but he found ways to make them both better and stronger and to produce them more efficiently. What he did invent, are the catalysts that enabled metals to be incorporated in polyethylene plastics, the light thin plastics usually used in packaging, as well as the denser polypropylene plastics, used in anything from automotive components to stationery and furniture.
If you have ever used a medical IV bag or played golf, you have benefitted from the work of John Ewen, and whenever you go to the supermarket and buy vegetables or meat covered in transparent plastic wrap, or when you buy a CD or DVD, you are seeing and touching the work of John Ewen. He has also developed an oxygen-permeable bag that allows salads to remain fresh without refrigeration, so they can be stored on the shelf longer. His work, which has revitalized and revolutionized the entire global industry and made it more lucrative, provides the means to better control and manipulate the properties of plastics, and has allowed the manufacturing of plastics that are heatproof, waterproof, tear-resistant, transparent, and durable.
Entrepreneurial and Enterprising
His work was never fully recognized at Exxon when he was there, and in the face of resistance to his ideas, he and his colleagues continued their research almost as a hobby, working at nights and on weekends. He published his first paper on the chemical control of polymers using metallocenes in 1984, and embarked on a public education campaign to educate the public on the benefit of the new plastics he conceived.
Later that year he moved to Fina Oil and Chemical Company, formerly American Petrofina, where he continued his work and developed the “Ewen Symmetry Rules,” now regarded in the industry as the starting point for catalyst design. While at Fina, his former employers suddenly became more interested in his work, and sued Fina over the work he had continued there, claiming it still belonged to them. Both companies engaged in a long and dirty patent lawsuit over his work, and then Ewen sued them both for libel, based on false statements they made about him during the case. The court ordered Fina to pay him just over half a million dollars, and for Exxon to pay him $4.6 million, in damages for defamation. A day later, before the court could rule on punitive damages, both companies quickly made an out-of-court settlement with him, for undisclosed terms.
Exxon and Fina together own over a hundred patents on metallocenes, many of which are based on his work, and he independently owns over 49 patents in his own name, and has authored 26 scientific publications. From 1991 to 2004 he was President of Catalyst Research Corporation, Houston, Texas, and since retirement has worked as a consultant. His new baby is an even more advanced group of catalysts, called heterocines.
His now second ex-wife once painted a portrait of him as medieval chemist, and he does describe himself as more alchemist than chemist, saying, “…I’d like to take lead and turn it into gold, but no one can do that. So, I take cheap raw materials – hydrocarbons – and make plastics out of them.”
He received the Exxon Chemical outstanding Patent award in 1996, and in 2004, he was awarded the honorary Doctor of Science from the University of the West Indies and also received the Munro and Dickenson Trust Award of Excellence.
In 2002, at 57, he was a guest of United States President George W. Bush at the White House, where he was awarded the American National Medal of Technology, which is the highest possible award in that field, and comparable to a Nobel Prize in chemistry, for which he was actually nominated in 1993. The citation credits him for his discoveries and inventions in the field of metallocine catalysts, which revolutionized and spurred the growth of the entire industry and enhanced American leadership in the field.
The stereotypical late bloomer, he notes that his late parents would have been proud of his many achievements, but adds that they also would have been surprised. He stressed in a 2004 interview that his life story was a lesson that young people should not be written off too soon, where achievement and excellence are concerned. “…If you look at my early years,” he said, “I was a very poor student, and I gave a lot of trouble…” His big sister Cecile says the way to get John to do anything was to tell him he couldn’t do it, and apparently nobody told him that in his classes at Munro. He encourages young people who enjoy research that the field can be a very rewarding, exciting, and interesting way to make a living, and that one must focus on the needs of society to make an impact.
For the above and other reasons, Dr. John A. Ewen, alchemist, catalyst chemist, industrial research chemist and inventor, was proudly inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.