I’ve been exchanging more emails about Risdon with the ever-insightful Byron Deveson. At my suggestion, he bought a copy of a 10-page pamphlet entitled “A Brief Guide to the Risdon Plant of the Electrolytic Zinc Company of Australasia Ltd, March 1949” online from an Australian bookseller: this includes maps and layouts of the buildings around the zinc works at Risdon, and also descriptions of the history and the various industrial processes involved.
One particular paragraph on page 3 leapt out at me, because it contained an unexpected fact that may change how we look at the Somerton Man case:-
“The flash-roasting furnace in which the charge is roasted when suspended in air as a dust has been in operation at Risdon for only four months.”
The pamphlet was written in March 1949: so four months before (i.e. around November 1948), an entirely new flash-roasting furnace that took powder as its input was coming online at the plant. At the Electrolytic Zinc Company’s AGM at the end of November 1948, the chairman had noted that: “The cost of the flash roaster and the new acid plant at the Risdon works had so far been about £560,000. That would give some idea of the magnitude of these additions to the Risdon plant.”
Byron Deveson’s opinion (and I do hope he won’t mind being quoted on this): “The fluidised bed calciner could pump out lots of fumes while it was being commissioned. The air coming out of the roaster has to be scrubbed very thoroughly, and there would be lots of it and malfunctions during the commissioning phase are quite likely.”
Moreover, according to page 7 of the March 1949 pamphlet:
“A contact sulphuric acid plant began operating at Risdon in December 1948 …”
This leads Byron to the further conclusion that “it is quite likely that the roaster gases that were discharged from the cyclones were probably vented into the atmosphere for several months before the acid plant was completed. And the lead dust particles would have not been noticeable but the lead concentration could have been quite high.”
The Somerton Man is now looking to me likely to have been the victim of industrial lead poisoning incident at Risdon in the period after the flash roaster was initially put into commission (October / November 1948) but before the acid plant started operation (December 1948). If this is correct, the most productive place to be looking for answers should be in the Eletrolytic Zinc Company’s staff records archives (which still exists and is held in Hobart).
Essentially, if the Somerton Man had been working there in November 1948, he certainly wasn’t being paid during December 1948: that should be sufficient to narrow the search down to two or three people. Pretty good odds! 🙂