Mark Oliphant, Keith Hancock and Howard Florey survey the site of the new university at the time of the Easter Conference, April 1948.

Mark Oliphant, Keith Hancock and Howard Florey survey the site of the new university at the time of the Easter Conference, April 1948.

Climbing a “mountain full of promises”

Charting the lives of the ANU Academic Advisory Committee

Dr Samuel Furphy, a research editor for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, canvasses the lives of the four pioneers who helped found and shape ANU.
 

How do you build a national research university from scratch? In 1947 the interim council of The Australian National University appointed an academic advisory committee to consider just such a question. It consisted of four luminaries: the pathologist and pharmacologist Sir Howard Florey, the physicist Mark Oliphant, the historian Keith Hancock and the anthropologist Raymond Firth.

Asked to provide advice on academic policy, staffing, buildings and equipment, among other things, the committee members met on weekends in Oxford or London and visited Canberra for the crucial ‘Easter Conferences’ in 1948. At the time it was envisaged that each would be appointed as director of a foundational Research School. Initially, however, only Oliphant came to Canberra, serving as director (1950-63) of the Research School of Physical Sciences. Hancock was later appointed director (1957-61) of the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS).

One of Hancock’s achievements as RSSS director was to establish the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The ADB now includes biographical entries on Florey and Hancock, and an entry on Oliphant is currently being prepared. These entries, along with an online exhibition at the ANU Archives, provide a fascinating insight into the advisory committee, which Oliphant later described as “the professorial board of the embryo university.”

How should we characterise the members of the committee? An obvious observation is that all were men. Unsurprisingly, three were Australian, while Firth was a New Zealander. All were internationally recognised leaders in their field. Florey had shared a Nobel Prize in 1945 for the discovery of penicillin, while Oliphant played a key role in the development of Britain’s nuclear capability. Hancock was Chichele Professor of Economic History at Oxford and Firth a Professor of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics. It is significant that all four held prestigious appointments at British universities, at a time when it was still rare for Australians to pursue academic careers elsewhere.

Joining ANU was a risky move for such established scientists and scholars. Oliphant often recalled Florey’s warning that “all he could expect to find would be a hole in the ground and a mountain full of promises.” He was at least partly lured by the promise of funds for his ‘cyclosynchrotron,’ which he championed despite the protests of Australian scientists who competed for government funds and feared the facility would become a ‘White Oliphant.’

Firth helped to define the University’s foundational focus on Pacific studies, but never seriously considered joining ANU. Florey was offered the directorship of the John Curtin School of Medical Research, but “he temporised and did not finally decline until 1957.” He would later become ANU chancellor.

In an essay on the Easter Conferences, Jill Waterhouse has observed that all four advisers “exhibited varying degrees of irritation and impatience, but Hancock was the most querulous of all.” His ADB entry notes that he backed away from the idea of heading a school of social sciences, as he thought of himself as “more of a social artist than a social scientist.” Council members also became concerned by his highly personalised mode of recruiting academics: they hoped for “departments or teams” that would “engage pragmatically with the nation and the region,” but “Hancock spoke of ‘chaps’, and had in mind independent research.” His employment offer was withdrawn in 1949 and he resigned from the advisory committee. But, bridges were not burned, and the council renewed its offer prior to his arrival in 1957. He and Oliphant were the foundational presidents of the Australian academies of Humanities and Science.

Read more at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

See an online exhibition of the 1948 Easter Conference at the ANU archives: https://archives.anu.edu.au/exhibitions/easter-conference-april-1948