Frank Fenner's medals in the Noel Butlin Archives at ANU. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Professor Frank Fenner's medals in the Noel Butlin Archives at ANU. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Recording a nation’s history

Deep within the University campus lies the records of some of Australia's most important moments. RICHARD FOX discovers what lays hidden in the ANU Archives.

As peace returned after the horrors of World War Two, four men gathered in the English cities of Oxford and London with a plan - to create a national university for a land on the other side of the planet.

These men - Sir Howard Florey, Mark Oliphant, Professor William Hancock and Professor Raymond Firth all held senior academic positions in the United Kingdom and their collective intellectual wisdom was used to form the Academic Advisory Committee - and The Australian National University started to take shape.

Along with the ANU Interim Council, the Academic Advisory Committee advised on the plan to establish the University, as well as its internal structure.

By April 1948, both groups had agreed that the University's first objective should be to establish four research schools - The John Curtin School of Medical Research, the Research School of Physical Sciences, Research School of Social Sciences and the Research School of Pacific Studies.

With that decision, ANU was underway.

The correspondence between England and Canberra in those early days is thoroughly documented in the ANU Archives, located in the Menzies Library.

It's a collection of archives which covers 1.5 kilometres of shelving; a remarkable history that also includes records, photographs and a range of material relating to the University's forerunners - Canberra University College, the Mount Stromlo Observatory and the Australian Forestry School.

Among the many treasures in the collection is the Grant of Arms, dated 1954, which awarded the University its coat of arms, and the first degree register - with page one signed by such luminaries as former Prime Ministers Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Sir Robert Menzies and former UK Prime Minster Harold Macmillan.

With PhD scholars dotted throughout the Archives, uncovering the history of the University is a popular pastime, with alumni and relatives of past staff members often visiting, according to University Archivist Maggie Shapley.