The 2009 George Bessey Award celebrates the contributions made to SCI by Ron Stephenson, whose industrial R&D career had a wide span across disinfectants and road construction materials. Ronald Stephenson began his career as a laboratory assistant at a subsidiary of Unilever. During this time, he dedicated his evenings to studying for his intermediate BSc at West Ham Technical College. His early career was interrupted by World War II, when he joined the Royal Air Force at the age of eighteen, serving as a navigator in Bomber Command for five years. After the war he returned to education and attained an associateship of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1951.
Upon resuming his career, Ronald attended a part-time postgraduate course in microbiology, years before the subject became a standard for study at degree level. He also became a research chemist and worked his way up the ladder at Burt Boulton and Haywood, where he became an assistant to WE Finch, a leading authority in the field of disinfection. His continued hard work ensured his ascent, and by 1961 he was appointed works manager.
Before Ronald joined Burt Boulton & Haywood, the company’s primary output was creosote, used for the pressure creosoting of wood, which they mainly sold to railway companies. However, during the war, the company’s site in London’s Docklands was severely damaged by German land mines. After the war, when rebuilding the country was a main priority, the government financed Burt Boulton & Haywood’s construction of a plant capable of distilling a million gallons of tar a week. At the same time, the gas and coal industry was nationalised. Since the basic raw material of tar works was crude tar from gas works, the tar works came under the umbrella of the nationalised industry. An arrangement was made that Burt Boulton would retain the senior staff on their books and run the business.
Burt Boulton’s disinfectant business produced tar as a byproduct. Ronald worked with a small team of chemists employed to exploit the very many chemicals contained in crude tar. When appointed manager of the disinfectant plant, he eventually became responsible for exploiting the by-products. Using the technology that was already in place to make disinfectant emulsions, he started manufacturing tar and bitumen emulsions, which were becoming popular for use in the surface dressing of roads. He also struck a research agreement with Swedish company Liljeholmens Stearinfabrik for the development of disinfectants based on fatty nitrogen compounds.
After the demise of the tar industry, he joined Liljeholmens as a marketing manager with R&D responsibilities. One of Liljeholmens’ major customers was the Scandinavian road industry, where fatty amines were used in oil-gravel roads. Ronald’s prime objective was developing fatty nitrogen compounds for use as fabric softeners and disinfectants; however, he exploited his knowledge in road materials and developed a range of adhesion agents and emulsions.
Ronald became a member of SCI in 1974; two years later, he joined the Construction Materials Group (then called the Road and Building Group). There he found many kindred spirits, and appreciated how the group fostered a close relationship between business and industry. He served the Group as programme secretary, vice chairman, and chairman, and remains on the committee today, helping organise lectures and meetings. Throughout his time on the Group, Ronald was able to find a fantastic range of speakers for symposia, drawing on his impressive list of business contacts in companies across Europe and North America.
In recognition of his longstanding membership and valued contributions to the Construction Materials Group, Ronald Stephenson was presented with the George Bessey Award on 19 March 2009 at SCI Headquarters in Belgrave Square, London.