Ref NoLDGSL/38
TitleALEXANDER, Frances Elizabeth Somerville (1908-1958)
Extent1.5 boxes + 10.2GB
DescriptionPapers of Frances Elizabeth Somerville ALEXANDER, née Caldwell, comprising:

Correspondence and reports on her work on the geology of Singapore, 1940-1952; Personal diary of Alexander recording her and her children's activities in New Zealand, January 1944-August 1945; Photographs, including school album, 1924-1928, portraits of Alexander as Head of Operations, Radio Development Laboratory (RDL) in New Zealand c.1943, album showing Alexander in the field in Singapore, 1947-1950.
Administrative HistoryFrances Elizabeth Somerville Caldwell was born in Merton, Surrey. She attended St Swithun's School, Winchester between 1923-1928. Excelling at physics, she entered Newnham College, Cambridge, to study Natural Sciences in 1928 where she graduated in 1931. Turning her focus to geology, she gained her PhD for her work on the Aymestry Limestone in 1935. That same year she married the New Zealand physicist Norman Alexander (1907-1997) and following her husband’s appointment as Professor of Physics at Raffles College, moved to Singapore in 1936.

Despite Alexander having no formal geological role on the island, she began immediately investigating, and conducting experiments on, the effects of tropical weathering on the landscape. From 1939 Alexander also undertook intelligence work for the Royal Navy at the Singapore Naval Base, providing statistical information and calibrating its Radio Direction Finding equipment.

In January 1942, with the imminent threat of invasion by the Japanese Army, Alexander was ordered by the Navy to evacuate her three children to New Zealand, and return with urgently needed equipment being manufactured in Australia. However Singapore fell the next month, and Alexander found herself stranded in New Zealand with neither husband nor income.

Known to the Head of New Zealand’s Radio Development Laboratory (RDL) from her Cambridge days, Alexander was invited to set up and run RDL’s Operations Research Section. Her work covered all of New Zealand’s contribution to World War II radars in the South Pacific. Most notably, her interpretation that an anomalous signal (picked up by New Zealand Air Force operators on Norfolk Island in March 1945) was caused by the sun became the beginning of solar radio astronomy in Australia .

Alexander’s contract with the New Zealand government ceased at the end of the Second World War. Reunited with her husband, she returned to Britain to organise the care of her children and complete a number of geological papers she had begun a decade earlier. In January 1948 she arrived back in Singapore. The priority was to help in the rebuilding of the island’s infrastructure including its decimated university (which saw Alexander acting as its temporary registrar). Her geological research opportunities were therefore limited, but in 1949 she was formally commissioned by the Singapore colonial government to survey the area for sources of granite for construction. The results, along with the first detailed geological map of Singapore, were published in 1950.

In 1951, Alexander was again to leave Singapore to follow her husband to his new post at University College Ibadan, Nigeria, but was still called upon to advise the Singapore government on geological matters until her sudden death in 1958. Her final paper “Observations on Tropical Weathering: a study of the movement of iron, aluminium and silicon in weathering rocks at Singapore” was published posthumously in the Society’s Quarterly Journal in 1959.
ProvenanceDonated by Alexander's daughter and biographer Mary Harris, June 2019. Apart from the school album, all photographs were lent and returned to Mary Harris in March 2019. The diary was also lent and returned, June 2019, as it is destined to be deposited with Alexander's old university Newnham College, Cambridge.
Access ConditionsAccess is by appointment only. Please contact the Archivist for further information.
Publication NoteMary Harris, 'Rocks, Radio and Radar: the extraordinary scientific, social and military life of Elizabeth Alexander’, World Scientific (2019).
ArchNoteDescription by Caroline Lam
CreatorNameALEXANDER | Frances Elizabeth Somerville | 1908-1958 | née Caldwell | geologist and physicist
DS/UK/1896ALEXANDER; Frances Elizabeth Somerville (1908-1958); née Caldwell; geologist and physicist1908-1958
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