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David Edmund Caro (1922–2011)

by Rod Home

David Caro, n.d.

David Caro, n.d.

David Edmund Caro was above all a physicist, an expert in the electronics involved in accelerating nuclear particles to high energies in order to probe the structures of atoms. He later became a major contributor to Australian higher education, serving as Vice-Chancellor of three universities and Chancellor of a fourth.

Caro was born and died in Melbourne. Son of George Alfred and Alice Lilian Caro, he was educated at Geelong Grammar School and in 1940 commenced a Science course at the University of Melbourne. During his second year, however, he joined the RAAF, where he and other recruits who knew some physics were introduced to one of the great secrets of the Second World War, radar. Caro learned a lot about electronics, becoming expert at installing and maintaining airborne radar equipment around Australia and in the islands to the north.

In 1946 he returned to university. After completing his BSc with first-class honours in Physics, he undertook a Master’s degree, working with Philip Law, then a lecturer in Physics but soon to become an inspirational leader of Australia’s Antarctic program, building equipment for measuring cosmic rays. This was destined for Antarctica and was field-tested on Mount Hotham. The work led to several publications and the award of an 1851 Exhibition overseas research scholarship that in 1949 took Caro to the University of Birmingham, in England. Here, the Australian-born professor, Marcus Oliphant, was overseeing the construction of a proton synchrotron intended to be the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. For his PhD, Caro worked on the radio-frequency electronics that were to drive this machine.

Caro returned in 1952 to the University of Melbourne, where he proved an excellent lecturer, adept at making complex ideas comprehensible. His experience in Birmingham made him an obvious choice to lead the University’s project to build an innovative, variable-energy cyclotron. Once completed, this machine gave several generations of postgraduate students excellent experience in nuclear physics research. Caro himself, however, never developed an on-going program of research using it. For him, as for Marcus Oliphant, the fascination lay in building a machine that worked, rather than in the experiments that one might then do with it.

Caro also found himself with less time for research, for in 1961 he became Professor of Experimental Physics and Head of Department. He proved an excellent administrator, declining to be a "god-professor" who made all decisions and instituting a more democratic committee system instead. New appointments reinvigorated a department that had become somewhat moribund, the curriculum was overhauled and new research groups established, and in time a new building, now known as the David Caro Building, provided more satisfactory accommodation.

Caro himself joined the department’s High-Energy Physics research group that was running an experiment on the huge proton synchrotron at Brookhaven, New York. The experiment generated hundreds of thousands of bubble-chamber photographs that were brought back to Melbourne for analysis. Caro worked to develop machines to measure the bubble-chamber tracks automatically. These depended on powerful computers, and Caro became an expert computer programmer.

In 1972 Caro became Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Adept with computers himself, he was instrumental in computerizing the University’s administrative systems. He also restructured the University’s way of dividing up its funds, replacing the previous, almost arbitrary procedures by a formula that rendered decisions transparent.

From 1978 to 1982, Caro was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania. He went there at a most difficult time, the planned merger between the Hobart-based University and the Launceston-based Tasmanian College of Advanced Education being strongly opposed in many quarters. Caro’s collegial approach and willingness to listen calmed many fears and resulted in what was generally seen as a successful outcome.

Concerned by problems in the University’s superannuation scheme, Caro became a leading advocate of the nation-wide scheme for university staff, Unisuper, that has become one of Australia’s most successful superannuation schemes. The University of Tasmania was the first institution to join, and Caro subsequently served for ten years as Chairman. Many thousands of university employees owe him an enormous debt for the soundly based retirement funding that the scheme provides them.

In 1979, Caro became chairman of the Government’s Antarctic Research Policy Advisory Committee which, under his leadership, laid the foundations of Australia’s current Antarctic program. The committee identified the need for a multi-purpose ice-breaker vessel (later realized in the RV Aurora Australis) and for air transport between Australia and its Antarctic bases, and proposed the system of research grants that has substantially increased Australia’s engagement with Antarctica. Caro himself visited Antarctica twice, including a brief but memorable visit to the South Pole.

Caro returned to the University of Melbourne in 1982 as Vice-Chancellor. He again proved a strong leader, successfully fighting off a State Government proposal that would have exposed the University to greater political interference. Within the University, he strongly supported centralized services such as the Computer Centre and the University Library, pushing through a massive increase in the Library’s acquisitions budget that transformed its ability to support the University’s academic programs. He was notably accessible—he regularly appeared in the lunch queue at the university staff club—and committed to a collegial approach to university administration that kept staff morale high even as government funding declined.

Caro retired in 1987 but his advice was much sought after by other higher-education institutions that were being transformed into universities at this period. In 1988, he was engaged to oversee the planned merger between the existing University College in Darwin and the Darwin Institute of Technology, to form the University of the Northern Territory (now Charles Darwin University). With the merger achieved, he became Interim Vice-Chancellor until a permanent Vice-Chancellor was appointed. He also served for several years on the council of the University of South Australia after this was formed out of the old South Australian Institute of Technology, as a council member and later Chancellor of the infant University of Ballarat, as a director of the Melbourne Business School, and as President of the Victorian College of the Arts. All these institutions benefited from his wisdom born of long experience of university administration, as well as from his capacity for cool, hard-headed strategic analysis informed by a clear vision of what a university should be. As someone who worked with him during these years has written: "David always was well informed, inclusive, visionary, decisive, patient and courteous. I never heard him say anything that was not correct."

Caro married in 1954. He is survived by his wife Fiona (née Macleod), their children Richard and Catriona, and their granddaughter Marguerite.

*** This is the text of the obituary that was submitted for publication. Some changes were made to the published version.

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Citation details

Rod Home, 'Caro, David Edmund (1922–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

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