An Artistic Science: A History of the Department of Chemistry Glass Shop
In September 2017, the Glass Shop on the 3rd floor of the Parker Building closed its doors for the last time. For more than 75 years, the shop’s expert scientific glassblowers provided custom-made glassware to the Department of Chemistry, other University departments, and the local scientific community, from design and manufacture of specialized one-of-a-kind items for research to modifications and repairs to glassware used in teaching laboratories. In the spring of 2019, looking ahead to the 50th anniversary of the Faculty of Science in 2020, a few former and current Department staff decided to piece together the shop’s history.
By Donna Danyluk (Administrative Assistant from 1982 to 1987), with input from Ian Ward (Glassblower from 1980 to 2006), Lesa Cafferty (Glassblower from 2006 to 2017), Wayne Buchannon (Technician from 1968 to 2013), and Joe O’Neil (current Professor). If you have any stories to share about the Glass Shop, let us know!
The earliest history of the Glass Shop is lost in the mists of time. A search through early graduate student theses produced one reference to a possible glassblower. In the 1938 M.Sc. Thesis of Ernest A. Brown, The Action of Carbon Dioxide on Metallic Manganese, are the words: “The writer is indebted to Mr. T.H. Martin for very helpful coaching in the operations of glassblowing”. This brief acknowledgement raises the question of whether students at that time were expected to fabricate their own glassware, under the guidance of someone more experienced.
A 1968 article published in The University of Manitoba Bulletin about the first Department glassblower known to us, George Epp, says that he joined the University in 1954 at the time “the [previous] glassblower employed by the Department left…”1 Could this have been T.H. Martin, or someone else? We’ll leave that to other Departmental history sleuths to determine.
George Epp era (1954 to 1968)
George Epp did not arrive in the Department as a trained glassblower. He was among the first Mennonite refugees to leave Germany in 1947, first living in a colony in Paraguay, then immigrating to Canada in 1954. Two sources of information about George Epp (the above article from the The University of Manitoba Bulletin and an entry in a Mennonite online encyclopedia) give slightly varying accounts of the start of his University of Manitoba career. The former says he “arrived in Winnipeg and immediately came to the University as a draftsman”1; the latter source states “Within days of his arrival in Winnipeg on 20 December 1954, he was offered a job as lab assistant to Dr. Alan Campbell [Department Head from 1944 to 1966] in the Chemistry Department at the University of Manitoba”2.
Whether a draftsman or a lab assistant, he was soon asked (or perhaps he volunteered) to replace the former glassblower (whoever that was), and began “teaching himself the job while doing it”1. In the summer of 1955, he spent time at a National Research Council laboratory in Saskatoon learning about glass, and took more training in 1957 at an NRC lab in Ottawa. George Epp became a skilled glassblower, and could “make almost anything in glass a laboratory could want.”1
A photo of George Epp on the job from the 1968 article in The University of Manitoba Bulletin. (no photo credit given).
He was learning more than glassblowing during these years. Over four years of night-school classes, he studied English and completed his high-school requirements. With Dr. Campbell’s encouragement, in 1960 he enrolled in University courses in the evenings and summers (using his vacation time) and by 1968 had earned BA and MA degrees in German. Along with juggling his work as glassblower along with his academic studies, presumably he would also have been responsible for moving his shop from the Department’s Buller Building location and setting up in the new Parker Building, which opened in 1961.
After completing his degrees, George Epp gave up his glassblowing position in 1968 to begin what would be a “long and distinguished career”2 teaching German language and literature, at Mennonite Brethern Bible College, both the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg, and other institutions, including serving as President of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University) until 1983. He died in Winnipeg in 1997.
Given the rarity of the trade3, finding a new glassblower for the Department could not be limited to a local search in Manitoba (with one important exception that occurs much later in the shop’s history). According to the Bulletin, the search for his replacement was conducted “in many parts of Canada by the [University] Personnel Department, while the Provincial Department of Industry and Commerce is looking in Holland. A good glassblower is hard to find.”1
Bryn Easterbrook / Howard Griffiths era (1968 to 1982)
That George Epp was replaced by not one but two individuals was an indication of the increasing need for glassblowing services in the Department. According to Wayne Buchannon, who was hired as a Technician in 1968, “There was a tremendous burst of hiring in the period from 1968 to 1970. There were at least five or six new academics hired during this time. Dr. Bob Betts [Department Head from 1966 to 1975] was extremely research-oriented, and obviously with all these new ‘young guns’, glassblowing was going to be a fairly large component of the effort as was the development of a large well-stocked chemical storeroom.”
The first replacement hired was Howard Griffiths, a glassblower from England (not Holland!). He began work in the Glass Shop in 1968, overlapping with George Epp briefly, and stayed until 1980 when he left for a position in the glass shop at Simon Fraser University. Later that year, in November, Bryn Easterbrook was hired and began work in the shop within days of arriving in Canada from his native Pontypridd, Wales.4
According to a 1971 Winnipeg Free Press article about Bryn Easterbrook, “The art of glass sculpturing began for him in his early teens. At school he was forever being sent to the headmaster by his science teacher for melting test-tubes in a Bunsen burner: ‘It fascinated me that glass could melt and be moulded.’”5 This fascination (and perhaps the headmaster’s desire to avoid a catastrophe in the school laboratory) would lead him to leaving school at the age of 14 and apprenticing with a local glass factory that had relocated from London to South Wales in 1939 due to the threat of war. Bryn held the distinction of being “the first boy to have been taught glassblowing in Wales.”5
After several years of rising through the ranks at the factory, he struck out on his own. In 1955, he formed the Easterbrook Glass Company with his wife Elizabeth, who had trained by his side, specializing in custom-made apparatus for chemistry research. With the increasing demand for such glassware, by 1964 his company had grown to employing 25 people who were filling orders from around the world.
In 1968, he met a University of Manitoba Physics professor who was visiting in Wales (Dr. Francis Konopasek, who died in 2010), and this led to him being offered a position in the University of Manitoba Glass Shop. “Because the Easterbrook’s yearned to travel, and ‘always had a hankering to come to Canada’, the offer was gladly accepted.”5
Bryn is remembered not only for his skills as a scientific glassblower but also for his passion for crafting artistic glass which he pursued with Elizabeth (Betty). Many Department staff and students who were around at that time likely have, or at least have seen, one of Bryn’s art glass pieces, from fanciful figurines to wine glasses to three-masted schooners complete with little glass sailors climbing the rigging.
Bryn Easterbrook worked in the Glass Shop until the end of 1981, when he took a leave for health reasons; he died soon after in May 1982. His last 16 months in the shop overlapped with Ian Ward, who had been hired in September 1980 to replace Howard Griffiths.
Ian Ward – Andrzej Kolacz era (1980 to 2006)
Ian Ward’s entry into glassblowing was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In 1963, Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) opened its new Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment (or Whiteshell Laboratories, as it would later be known) in Pinawa, Manitoba, and they were hiring. In 1964, two years after high school, Ian began work there as a technician, receiving on-the-job training. He had a chance to try some simple glassblowing jobs, and the work appealed to him, so he was sent to the AECL laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario, for five months in 1966 to receive more training. In August 1966, AECL hired an experienced glassblower from England, Jim Cafferty, for the Whiteshell laboratories, and Ian moved back to Pinawa to continue his training under Jim. He worked in the Glass Shop with Jim for another 8 years, and left in 1974 to pursue other interests6.
Six years later, he found out that the University of Manitoba was looking for a replacement for Howard Griffiths, and decided to apply. Even after the time away from glassblowing, he had not lost the skills he had acquired at AECL. At his interview, before he had even finished the test pieces that Bryn had given him to do, he was offered the job. He would become the longest-serving glassblower in the Department, with 26 years of service from September 1980 until his retirement in 2006.
When Bryn left the shop at the end of 1981 for health reasons, Ian was on his own. The search for a replacement for Bryn began later in 1982 under Dr. Bryan Henry (Department Head from 1980 to 1986). In October 1982, Donna Danyluk (Derenchuk at the time) was hired to replace Bob Russell as Department Administrative Assistant. Difficulty in attracting qualified applicants for the glassblower position led Dr. Henry to assign his new Admin Assistant a rather daunting task: the glassblower salaries needed to be increased within the support staff union contract, and Ian’s position needed to be re-classified to the senior level (as he had already been running the shop by himself for almost two years). With more experience in student affairs than human resources, she recalls it as a challenging process, but in the end, the Department was successful on both counts. After another round of external advertising, Andrzej Kolacz, a young glassblower from Poland who was working in Montreal, was hired in early 1984. He worked in the shop with Ian for 7 years until leaving in late 1990 for a position with a commercial scientific glassblowing company in Ottawa.
The early 1980s saw more than staffing changes in the Glass Shop. Much-needed capital equipment purchases were made to replace the aging and nearly obsolete glass-working lathe, annealing oven and cut-off saw, all essential tools of the trade. But chemistry research was also changing, and as the decade progressed, the demand for Glass Shop services from within the Department declined7. Although there had always been some work coming in from other University departments, some external promotion was done to target University researchers who were unaware of the extent of services provided by the Glass Shop. Over the years, work was done for many different departments, with major users being the Faculty of Medicine research departments and the Faculty of Pharmacy. Outside the University, users included Fisheries and Oceans Canada, provincial government health laboratories, the Apotex pharmaceutical company as well as smaller local industries.
Two items that promoted the shop to the wider University community; (left) The University of Manitoba Bulletin in June 1985, and (right) the 1989 Campus phone directory.
By the end of the decade, however, it was clear that the workload would not support two full-time glassblowers in the long term, so Ian encouraged the younger Andrzej to apply for the better opportunity in Ottawa that he had heard about. From 1991 to 2006, Ian was the sole glassblower in the Department. In the months leading up to his retirement at the end of August 2006, the process to find a replacement glassblower began once again. But this time, no search was needed. Ian knew just the right person to call – the only other glassblower who had been trained by Jim Cafferty, his former mentor in Pinawa.
Like many other scientific glassblowers, Ian Ward enjoyed the creativity of artistic glasswork. During the brief time he worked with Bryn Easterbrook, he learned new techniques, and many of his pieces, were coveted prizes at Department Christmas parties. (Photos by Ian Ward)
Lesa Cafferty era (2006 to 2017)
Lesa Cafferty working at the lathe, from UM Today Feb. 9, 2012. (Photo by Mariianne Mays Wiebe)
As the daughter of a glassblower, Lesa Cafferty was exposed to the craft at an early age, as her father did artistic glass-working on the side in the family garage in Pinawa. In high school, she had a chance to spend some time with her father in the glass shop at the Whiteshell laboratories. She was intrigued that something she thought was just a creative hobby had such an important use in science, and decided that after high school she would apprentice under her father8.
She had a natural talent for glassblowing, and in four years, had acquired the necessary skills to replace Jim Cafferty when he retired from AECL in 1996. She worked there for two more years until 1998, when AECL decided to close its Whiteshell facility. She applied for other glassblowing positions in the U.S., but decided to stay in Manitoba for family reasons and make do with part-time work.
During this time, Ian Ward had occasional contact with Lesa, and knew about her glassblowing skills9. In the summer of 2006, after consulting with Dr. Norm Hunter (Department Head from 2004 to 2009), he called her to come in for an interview. The test piece that Ian asked her to make was meant to be done on the lathe, but as Lesa had not used a lathe since leaving Pinawa, she chose to use the more familiar bench burner. Her first attempt didn’t exactly go as planned, but after a quick phone call to her Dad for some encouragement, she completed the test piece successfully. Hired in August 2006, she was the Department glassblower for 11 years until September 15, 2017, when the Faculty of Science made the decision to close the Glass Shop for fiscal reasons due to the continuing decline in need for specialized glassware.
Ian Ward and Lesa Cafferty in September 2017. Ian visited the shop for one last time as Lesa was starting to pack up supplies and equipment when the shop closed. For the second time, the enormous lathe behind them would be squeezed into the Parker Bldg. elevator, weighing barely under the load limit. (Photo by Ed Wiebe)
Lesa was confident, however, that there would still be enough work from some researchers in the Department and elsewhere to make it worthwhile to open her own business. Over a period of a few months, Lesa and her husband Ed Wiebe had a 900 square-foot shop constructed on their rural property near Anola.10, They purchased all of the Glass Shop equipment and supplies from the University, and after a laborious move, Cafferty’s Scientific Glassblowing opened in February 2018. She is now officially Manitoba’s only scientific glassblower, and orders from the University currently account for about half of her business. The Chemistry Department website maintains a link to her website https://caffertyglass.ca under the “Facilities and Services” menu.