A shrine for investigators

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When Littleton Groom rose to speak on the budget in October 1936, he had been in the House of Representatives for 33 years. Amongst those present, only his friend and former leader, Billy Hughes, had been there longer. They were the last survivors of the nation’s inaugural parliament, a living link to the era of Federation. And it was one of the legacies of Federation that Groom was seeking to address—the future of the capital.

Groom’s passion for education remained undimmed across the years; still he sought in knowledge and learning a key to the nation’s destiny. ‘It is impossible for any one to contemplate a national capital of a great country like Australia without its having a university’, Groom remarked a few months earlier, ‘with all the scientific institutions being developed in the environs of Canberra, it will, undoubtedly, in future be a great cultural centre for the Commonwealth’. 1 Canberra needed a university. The establishment of the capital as an important seat of learning was one of Groom’s ‘dearest dreams’, and it was this topic he returned to in what would be his last substantial contribution to parliament. 2 Canberra needed a university, he reiterated in the budget debate, but a university that was ‘entirely different’ to those in the state capitals. What Canberra needed, what Australia needed, was ‘a university whose activities will be devoted mainly to research’. 3

The idea of a national university brought together two of Groom’s abiding preoccupations, the expansion of education, and the growth of the capital. ‘Were there no provision in the Constitution for the establishment of a Federal Capital’, Groom told a luncheon in 1921, ‘I am satisfied that the force of public opinion in Australia would necessitate its establishment’. 4 Groom imagined the capital as an expression of national unity, an embodiment of the federal ideal. When state and federal governments clashed over the proposed location of the new city in 1905, Groom reminded his colleagues that they were ‘deciding a very momentous question’. The capital, he maintained, would be ‘a source of inspiration of the true Federal feeling’. Canberra was not merely to be the home of lawmakers and bureaucrats, nor was it just another city. Canberra, Groom argued, would enrich the public’s understanding of Federation, bringing ‘a higher national sentiment’ to bear on civic life and duty. This new city ‘would stand apart’ from others, representing not just Australia’s system of government, but ‘the national life’ itself. 5

In 1927, as parliament assembled for the first time in the new capital, it was Groom who presided over the House of Representatives from the elaborately-carved Speaker’s chair. The city was growing, the ideal was taking shape. The period of rapid development that culminated in the opening of Parliament House had been initiated, in part, by Groom himself, as Minister for Works and Railways in the Hughes government. Now, having smoothed the transfer of parliament and its staff, Groom could enjoy a sense of fulfilment and the promise of greatness. 6 Accepting the Speaker’s chair as a gift from the Empire Parliamentary Association, Groom acknowledged Australia’s proud British heritage, but added, ‘we are a new country facing new conditions, necessarily taking a new outlook on things’. 7 Canberra was a city of the future, a living symbol of national progress.

From early in its planning, it was assumed that the capital would be graced with a university of its own. But it was only in the 1920s, when Canberra became home to a swelling horde of public servants, that the matter received detailed attention. 8 Striding to the fore was Robert Randolph Garran, secretary of the Attorney-General’s department, and perhaps ‘the greatest of all Commonwealth Public Servants’. 9 Garran was a cultivated man with wide literary interests and an ‘unrivalled knowledge of the Constitution’. 10 As one of the architects of Federation, Garran shared with Groom a belief that the capital was an ‘integrating factor’, a ‘symbol and emblem of Australian nationality’. Canberra was blessed with ‘unlimited possibilities’, he argued, not as a commercial centre, but as ‘a city of light and learning’; a city that would ‘absorb the cultural ideas of all Australia and radiate them back over the whole Commonwealth’. A university would provide the ‘finishing touch’, confirming Canberra at the centre of the nation’s pride and aspiration. 11

Garran led the University Association of Canberra, arguing both for an institution that would meet the educational needs of the city’s growing population, and for something ‘distinctly different’—a national university that would focus upon ‘post-graduate research and specialised higher study in subjects of outstanding national significance’. 12 Early progress was made on the first of these aims with the establishment of the Canberra University College in 1930. A great ‘research university’, however, could not be conjured so readily, despite the support of scientists such as David Rivett, who believed that ‘a shrine for investigators’ would bring benefit both to capital and country. 13

In 1934, Garran chaired ‘an enthusiastic public meeting’ that declared the ‘time was ripe’ for the creation of a ‘National University’ in Canberra. The promotion of ‘national unity’ was a recurrent theme as speakers proclaimed that only through the founding of an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge could Canberra ‘fulfil its true national character’. A deputation was raised to impress upon Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, the ‘prime necessity’ of such an undertaking. 14 Garran’s former minister, Littleton Groom, introduced the group, emphasising the importance of their mission, but Lyons predictably cited the government’s ‘financial difficulties’, and merely offered to investigate further. 15

Garran continued to lobby, without success, until war sharpened the focus once more on the link between knowledge and nationhood. The bright young bureaucrats busy drafting plans for postwar reconstruction began to ponder the Commonwealth’s role in education. 16 People needed help adjusting to the rapid pace of change; the success of any ‘new order’ would hinge upon the health and resilience of the national mind. ‘It will be a difficult and dangerous matter’, warned the Committee on National Morale, ‘for the Government to confine its activities to economic and social questions from now on, and ignore the educational problem’. 17 This renewed interest in education also reflected the postwar planners’ confidence in the power of knowledge to transform society. Commonwealth action in higher education would affirm the authority of expertise; it would enable the process of planning to evolve in sophistication and effectiveness. At this convergence of ideas about knowledge, society, and intellectual leadership, a national university suddenly emerged as a critical component in Australia’s future progress. ‘The concept of the National University was an expression of the optimism of the times’, explained HC Coombs. 18

In October 1949, Robert Garran revelled in a ‘dream come true’, as the foundation stones of the Australian National University were finally laid in place. Canberra would at last be home to a ‘community of scholars’, Garran remarked, ‘and I look forward to their presence broadening the outlook of our citizens, our Parliament, our Administrators’. 19 As Garran had planned twenty years earlier, this was to be a new kind of university, concentrating on research and postgraduate training. Its facilities would be ‘equal to the world’s best’, proclaimed JJ Dedman, the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction, and would ‘attract the best brains the nation can produce’. 20 But not all was as Garran had envisaged, for recent ‘world events’ had taken a hand in the design of the new institution. He had imagined a modest beginning, with research confined to the ‘social sciences and Pacific and Oriental studies’. The war, however, had adjusted the nation’s priorities, compelling the government to embark upon a more ambitious project, with ‘special emphasis on physical and medical research’. 21

Physics had been almost an afterthought, first included in plans for the national university at the urging of Richard Woolley, Duffield’s successor as Director of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, and HC Coombs’ sometime flatmate. 22 Doubt lingered as to whether the government could afford research in such an expensive discipline, but then, as Woolley recalled, ‘the atom bomb went off’. 23 Atomic physics suddenly held the world in thrall, and scientists associated with the bomb, such as the Australian-born physicist Mark Oliphant, became instant celebrities. Oliphant was at his beguiling best when he met with Coombs and Chifley to discuss the impact of atomic energy on the postwar world. Convinced by the physicist’s argument that Australia could not risk being left behind in this history-making quest, Chifley assured Coombs that if Oliphant could be won for Canberra, the government would find the funds. 24

From afterthought to acclamation, Australia’s proposed entry into the realm of atomic physics quickly came to dominate public interest in the new university. Oliphant and another eminent expatriate, Howard Florey, wielded immense influence at the planning table and in the press. They were the ‘atom bomb and penicillin men’, Australians who had proved themselves at the highest levels of scientific achievement; patriotic Australians who were working with the government to ensure their homeland was equipped to benefit from the onward march of science. 25 Oliphant, Donald Horne reported, was ‘one of the key men of the Atomic Age’—a modest and determined scientist with a talent for ‘the salesmanship of ideas’. 26 He was bringing to Canberra, not only his plans for fundamental research into the nature of matter, but ‘the world’s largest “atom buster”’. 27 Australia was promised the biggest and the best.

The National University, Dedman asserted at the inaugural ceremony, was evidence of the government’s determination ‘that the development of Australia will forge ahead with the backing of all the physical, intellectual and scientific resources we can muster’. 28 The postwar planners expected the university to play a major role in their ‘peaceful revolution’. Its flow of ‘intellectual energy’ would power the forces of change; its innovative research programs would ensure that science was made to ‘serve humanitarian purposes as forcefully as it had served those of mass destruction’. 29 It was a utilitarian vision fashioned from the ideals of science, the ambitions of nationhood, and the history of federalism. ‘I am proud to have the opportunity of taking part in this ceremony’, Robert Garran concluded, ‘which dedicates Australia, and this city, to the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and wisdom’. 30


  1. CPD, vol. 151, 16 September 1936, p.154.
  2. Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia, p. 154, 236.
  3. CPD, 13 October 1936, vol. 151, pp. 1033-4.
  4. Littleton Groom, Work at the Federal Capital: address delivered by Hon. Littleton E Goom at the National Club Luncheon on Monday, 29 August, 1921,Canberra, 1921. p.1.
  5. ‘The necessity for Canberra’, Federal Capital Pioneer Magazine, 20 July 1927, p. 17.
  6. For Groom’s interest and association with Canberra, see Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia.
  7. Quoted in Jessie Groom (ed.), Nation building in Australia, p.188.
  8. Milton Lewis, ‘Canberra as a cultural centre: the aspirations of the Canberra University Movement 1927-1945’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 65, part 1, June 1979, pp. 59-64; SG Foster, and Margaret M Varghese, The making of the Australian National University, 1946-1996, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1996, pp. 4-9.
  9. Quoted in RS Parker, ‘Garran, Sir Robert Randolph (1867-1957)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, pp. 622-5.
  10. ibid.
  11. Sir Robert Garran, ‘A National University at Canberra’, Australian Quarterly, no. 27, September 1935, p. 15.
  12. ibid., pp. 9,13.
  13. Quoted in Lewis, ‘Canberra as a cultural centre’, p. 62. See also: T H Laby, ‘A university for the Commonwealth’, Australian Quarterly, no. 1, March 1929, pp. 32-42.
  14. Canberra Times, 10 October 1934, pp. 1-2.
  15. ‘Establishment of national university in Canberra: notes of deputation which waited on the Prime Minister on 28 November, 1934’, NAA: A461/7 J340/1/7 Part 1.
  16. Foster and Varghese, The making of the Australian National University, pp. 10-19; HC Coombs, Trial balance: issues of my working life, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1983,pp. 198-200; Tim Rowse, Nugget Coombs: a reforming life, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 172-3.
  17. ‘Report with recommendations on morale and the Commonwealth’s activities in the field of education’, 27 September 1943, NAA: A1608/1, AK 29/1/2.
  18. Coombs, Trial Balance, p. 199
  19. ‘Australian National University, address by Sir Robert Garran on the occasion of the laying of the first foundation stones of the university’, 24 October 1949, NAA: A461/7, J340/1/7 Part 1. See also: Canberra Times, 25 October 1949, p. 2.
  20. ‘Opening of National University, speech made by the Minister for Post War Reconstruction’, NAA: A461/7, J340/1/7 Part 1.
  21. ‘Australian National University, address by Sir Robert Garran on the occasion of the laying of the first foundation stones of the university’, 24 October 1949, NAA: A461/7, J340/1/7 Part 1.
  22. Coombs, Trial Balance, p. 199; Rowse, Nugget Coombs, p. 173.
  23. Richard Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 1, no. 3, September 1968, p. 56.
  24. Coombs, Trial balance, pp. 81-3; Foster and Varghese, The making of the Australian National University, pp. 20-1.
  25. Herald, 2 October 1946, p. 11.
  26. Daily Telegraph, 14 January 1947, p. 6.
  27. Daily Telegraph, 15 July 1949, p. 9.
  28. ‘Opening of National University, speech made by the Minister for Post War Reconstruction’, NAA: A461/7, J340/1/7 Part 1.
  29. Coombs, Trial balance, p. 200.
  30. ‘Australian National University, address by Sir Robert Garran on the occasion of the laying of the first foundation stones of the university’, 24 October 1949, NAA: A461/7, J340/1/7 Part 1.

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