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Sir Richard Arthur (Dick) Blackburn (1918–1987)

by Peter Karmel

At a meeting of the Council of the University on 9 October, the Vice-Chancellor, Emeritus Professor Peter Karmel, delivered the following tribute to Sir Richard Blackburn, Chancellor of ANU, who died on 1 October.

Tributes have already been paid in other places to Sir Richard Blackburn for his distinction as a jurist and much has been made of the respect in which he was held during his 14 years on the Bench. I wish to talk of his academic career and of the contributions he made to two Australian universities.

Richard Arthur Blackburn was born in Adelaide in 1918, the son of a distinguished soldier, Brigadier A.S. Blackburn, VC. He went to school at St. Peter's College and became a student at the University of Adelaide, where he was resident in St. Mark's College. He graduated BA and was the South Australian Rhodes Scholar for 1940.

His academic career, which was an illustrious one, was interrupted by war service, after which he became a member of Magdalen College, Oxford. He was Eldon Law Scholar for 1949 and called to the English Bar in the same year.

I met Dick Blackburn for the first time at the University of Adelaide in May 1950. We had both been appointed to chairs in that university in 1950 at comparatively young ages; and we were not the only ones (Professor J. J. C. Smart, who retired from this University last year, and Mr. Hugh Stretton, still at the University of Adelaide, being others). The then Vice-Chancellor believed in taking a gamble on young appointments — mature academics were in short supply. Dick remained my close colleague until 1957, when he left to enter legal practice.

In those days the power of the professors at Adelaide was considerable, and meetings of the Education Committee were frequent. My strong recollection of Dick Blackburn is of a person of scrupulous fairness and of a total commitment to the world of knowledge and the search for truth. Somewhat conservative in his personal views, he respected people for their contributions to academic life without regard to political or other considerations. He was in every sense an upright man and a true scholar.

After Dick Blackburn left the University, he made a second career in the practice of the law: 14 years as barrister and solicitor, 14 years as judge, the last seven as Chief Justice of the ACT Supreme Court.

We met again in 1971 when I came to Canberra to the Universities Commission; and, of course, we have had a close relationship over the past five years.

Sir Richard Blackburn served this University, without material reward, for 11 years: as Pro-Chancellor for nearly eight years, and since April 1984, as Chancellor. As Pro-Chancellor and Chancellor he displayed that same scrupulous fairness that he showed as a young man at the University of Adelaide — a characteristic that won him respect as a university teacher, a judge and a senior university officeholder throughout his life.

Dick Blackburn loved scholarship and loved the law. He was proud to be Chancellor of this University — his only regret being that illness prevented his being as active as he would have wished over the past 12 months. He wanted to meet University people and be involved in University affairs. He especially enjoyed presiding at graduation ceremonies, which he did with great dignity, good humour and warmth; he presided at two ceremonies in May this year with great courage, only days before his illness finally overcame him.

Throughout his professional life he was supported by his wife, who is held in warm affection by all who know her. They made a pair in the offices of Pro-Chancellor and Chancellor. We shall miss our Chancellor greatly; especially will we miss his wise counsel and his calm and judicious chairmanship of this Council. We offer our respect, affection and deep sympathy to Lady Blackburn.

Original publication

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Citation details

Peter Karmel, 'Blackburn, Sir Richard Arthur (Dick) (1918–1987)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 July 2024.

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