True resting place forgotten

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenGeraldton Guardian
From left to right, Jean, Etienne and Andre Bieler.
Camera IconFrom left to right, Jean, Etienne and Andre Bieler. Credit: Supplied

Ninety-year-old records reveal the remains of a world-renowned Canadian physicist, thought to be in Geraldton Cemetery, lie elsewhere.

Etienne Samuel Bieler was 34 when he died suddenly of pneumonia at Geraldton on July 25, 1929.

Dr Bieler was in the Mid West to determine the suitability of the Northampton area for geophysical investigation.

After arriving in Perth on Monday, July 22, 1929, he met with staff at the University of Western Australia to discuss the results of tests carried out by the UWA Physics Department.

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He then caught a train to Geraldton but was gravely ill when he arrived.

“On Monday, Dr Bieler appeared to be in perfect health, but before reaching Geraldton the following morning he was so ill as to be unable to continue on the journey to Northampton,” Perth newspaper The Daily News reported on Friday, July 26, 1929.

“He was taken to the Geraldton Hospital, where he died early yesterday morning.”

Dr Bieler was thought to have been buried in the Geraldton Cemetery at Utakarra.

That was until recently, when cemetery superintendent Harry Taylor discovered an anomaly while checking old records.

“We had no records of a person being buried in that grave,” Geraldton Cemeteries Board member Don Golding said.

“So the superintendent went and took the probe down and hammered it down about six times, and he struck nothing.

“We took into account the wood on the caskets does deteriorate — after about 40 years sometimes they’re not there.

“But there was nothing there.”

Further investigations revealed Dr Bieler’s remains actually lie in an unmarked grave at Geraldton’s Apex Park Pioneer Cemetery.

Mr Golding said he believed the shire of the time may have forbidden a headstone to be placed at the grave because the cemetery had officially closed about six months earlier, on January 31, 1929.

Instead, a one-tonne memorial stone, cut from White Peak Quarry, was erected in Geraldton Cemetery, where it still stands.

The headstone — erected more than a year after Dr Bieler’s death — was paid for by the scientific fraternity and approved by his father, Professor Charles Bieler.

“Someone asked his father what he thought should be put on top of his grave and he said, because he’s a geologist, a stone would be appropriate,” Mr Golding said.

Because refrigeration did not exist in those days, the burial was hastily arranged. Among the small crowd who attended were some of Geraldton’s most notable figures, including the mayor and the coroner.

“Because he was so eminent in the world, the important people of Geraldton recognised that and they wanted to be seen to be doing due homage to him,” Mr Golding said.

“In the field in which he was in, nuclear physics, there is no one buried in Geraldton anywhere near him.

“I won’t say he’s the most prominent person (buried) in Geraldton, because there’s quite some famous people in our cemetery.

“But he would have been the most eminent scientist, without doubt. He published 14 books on nuclear physics which were accepted in academia as being of world renown.”

Mr Golding said there were no immediate plans to move Dr Bieler’s headstone to a more prominent place.

“I think it would be a waste of time putting it on his actual grave now because it would be subject to vandalism, it’s in the open,” he said.

“If, in the wisdom of our civic fathers, they decided to remove that rock, with the right permissions, they could move it to a more central place.

“But I don’t know where that central place should be.”

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