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David Noel Dunbar (1922–2011)

Noel Dunbar, 1977

Noel Dunbar, 1977

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-604

His mother used to tell friends that her son was given the name Noel because he was born on Christmas Day. Certainly, he was known as Noel in all his long and distinguished public life. Born and raised in New Zealand, he was yet another of those many NZ scholars who spent their careers enriching Australian university life. After leaving school with a scholarship to the then federated University of New Zealand, he graduated BSc in 1944 and then in 1946 MSc with first-class honours in physics while an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Otago.

In 1947 he was recruited to the University of Melbourne, where the Professor of Physics Sir Leslie Martin was building a school of young men of high promise in the field of nuclear physics. Noel Dunbar combined this with a background in electronics; Martin also gave him responsibility for the control and distribution of departmental funds—experience that was to mark Noel’s career for all his future. Noel was at Melbourne as Lecturer and Senior Lecturer from 1947 to 1958. He was a memorable teacher, and former students both from Melbourne and from ANU speak of him with respect and gratitude. He gained his PhD at Melbourne in 1951, and in 1952 was awarded a Fulbright Travelling Scholarship to take up a research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. He retained a warm relationship with Caltech for the rest of his life.

In 1958, the small Canberra University College, which was under the oversight of the University of Melbourne, decided to establish a Faculty of Science to supplement its offerings in humanities and social sciences. It offered Noel the Chair of Physics, which he accepted and took up in early 1959. He recruited an outstanding team of young lecturers, several of whom went on to chairs in universities in Australia and overseas.

The college was amalgamated with The Australian National University in 1960, and Noel’s career thereafter was in this University and later in the Commonwealth’s educational bureaucracy. From 1963 to 1967 he was Dean of Science, and from 1968 to 1977 he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of the ANU; he was then recruited to be Chairman of the Universities Council of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission by the Commission’s Chair, Professor Peter Karmel.

As Dean and then as DVC, Noel served on a host of committees inside and outside the University, the most significant of which were: the University Council and its finance committee; the Standing Committee of the Board of The Faculties; the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies; and the regular meetings of deans and directors. In these his participation was marked by rigour as to goals and standards, and flexibility as to methods of attaining them. He was a key figure in the reconstruction of The Faculties, which changed its name from School of General Studies (SGS) with its implication of low-level academic work, and changed the office of Principal of the SGS to Deputy Chairman of the Board of The Faculties (the Vice-Chancellor was officially chairman, but delegated the function to the deputy chairman). These moves raised The Faculties to the status of a mini-university within the wider University and brought The Faculties a measure of autonomy they had not enjoyed before. He also initiated what became the University’s housing scheme for staff, enabling them to borrow on advantageous terms from the University’s own superannuation funds to buy a first house. Many remember that with gratitude.

As Chairman of the Universities Council in the Tertiary Education Commission from 1977 to 1986, Noel became responsible for the coordinated development of the whole Australian university scene. It was an uncomfortable position between the policies of first Coalition and then Labor governments on the one side and the ambitions of the universities on the other—not to mention the ambitions of the College of Advanced Education, with their own council within the commission. He firmly defended the unique status of universities and their research mission. It is a tribute to Noel Dunbar’s good sense and tact that if there was friction it was never apparent; the commission worked well and the universities continued to develop.

On retirement, Noel served a period as Chairman of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust with which he had been involved since 1976, and then became a Visiting Fellow in the Physics Department of the Science Faculty at ANU from 1991 to the end of 2003. In recognition of his distinguished public service, the University conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on 7 May 1987.

All of that is the public record of an outstanding servant of the Academy. It does not indicate what colleagues and friends warmly remember: the jovial bon vivant, the connoisseur who went year after year to tour the major wine regions of the world, the pillar of Rotary, of the Commonwealth Club, the Royal Canberra Golf Club and Benchmark Wine Bar, the congenial host, the entertaining and lively guest, the good companion, the dutiful son. Noel cared for his mother until her death at an advanced age, and never married. Late in his own life he suffered serious illness; he died on 9 May 2011.

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Citation details

'Dunbar, David Noel (1922–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 April 2024.

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