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Sir Roy Douglas (Pansy) Wright (1907–1990)

by Ross Hohnen

Roy Douglas Wright, AK, DSc (Melb and ANU), Hon. LLD (ANU and Melb)., was indeed a man of vision and action, who contributed uniquely to the creation of the John Curtin School of Medical Research and, over thirty years of service, much more generally to the University's development.

Tasmanian born in 1907, Wright was Professor of Physiology in the University of Melbourne 1939-71; subsequently Medical Director of the Peter MacCallum Clinic 1971-76, and recently for the ten previous years, Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

He was a foundation member of the Interim Council of this University, and its Honorary Secretary until August 1947 when the first Registrar was appointed; member of Council until 1976, member of the Finance, Statutes, and other Committees touching upon every aspect of the University's development, with a watchful eye for any suggestion of injustice and an alert interest in the University's legislation. A man difficult adequately to portray: with his distinctive drawl and use of the vernacular, reflective and deliberate of speech and manner, of simple but persistent logic, creative in the conception of great social institutions as well as in his field of science, creative not just in dreams alone, but in the assiduous follow-through; sociable without pretence, raconteur about whom, himself, anecdotes are countless, a man who passes now into legend.

Many threads led to the Government's decision to set up the ANU, but Pansy's role was singular. It is timely, in his memory, to record how this connection came about.

Much concern and thought were given in 1944, with Australia still at War, but no longer under threat of invasion, to the post-war period. Sir Howard Florey put forward a proposal for a national medical research institute. Separately, an interdepartmental committee under the chairmanship of Dr E. Ronald Walker made far reaching proposals concerning the Commonwealth's role in higher education; it also proposed to the Government that immediate steps be taken to set up a National University of Canberra, focusing on postgraduate studies and research in government, international relations, particularly Pacific affairs, and Australian history and literature, as well as offering undergraduate teaching.

Wright was a vital catalyst between Sir Howard Florey (in whose laboratory at Oxford he had worked in 1937-38) and General Blamey, commander of the Allied Land Forces, South West Pacific Area, in giving shape and impetus to Florey's proposal for a national medical research institute, which Blamey took to the Prime Minister, Mr John Curtin. At this time, he was a member of the Australian Army Directorate of Research. This unusual, sometimes controversial, group of talented and innovative people with close access to Blamey also had cross communication with H. C. Coombs and his colleagues in the Department of Post War Reconstruction, who were already greatly exercised with the challenges to be met, post war, both of social adaptation and reconstruction, and in scientific progress. Australians, without ready access to training in the requisite skills and disciplines, would need to take their places in a world in which war had generated great advances in scientific knowledge, where there would be close interaction with other political and social systems, and particularly, a new appreciation of Australia's place in South East Asia.

With the benefit of these cross links to PWR, Wright was again catalyst, this time in the much wider design of the concept of the University which received enthusiastic Government approval in mid-1955 and which, in the 1946 enactment, incorporated, not only the John Curtin School of Medical Research, but the schools of physical sciences, social sciences, and Pacific studies.

To prepare the way for the new University, advisory groups had been set up for each of the intended schools, - Wright, of course, being a member of the committee concerned with medical research, together with Dr F. M. Burnett, (Hall Institute), Dr F. McCallum, (Director-General of Health), Sir Alan Newton, College of Surgeons, and Professor H. K. Ward (Bacteriology, University of Sydney). He was also a foundation member of the Interim Council set up to bring the new University into being.

It was fortunate in the immediate post war years that key Australian civil servants and scholars interested in the national university project were frequently in Britain, and able, readily, to establish close links with expatriates from Australia and New Zealand, among whom they engendered considerable interest and excitement for the new initiative. From these talks, Oliphant, and Hancock with Florey and Firth emerged as advisers to whom the Interim Council hoped to look to establish the first four schools.

Excitement there was, but also a developing realism and questioning on the part of the advisers. Each of them was engaged in work in postwar Britain of considerable importance. To move back to Australia meant an unquantifiable hiatus in this work. It would mean much heart searching over decisions to be made, involving not only themselves and their families, but their close collaborative colleagues. And what assurances could the Interim Council give about all manner of personal and work-related matters, finance, housing, budgets, buildings and facilities, the University's structure and organisation, control of funds, the making of appointments, statutes, the powers of Directors, and the all important one, to them, of who was to be their leader if they came, the first Vice-Chancellor?

Wright and Coombs were very much personal points of contact and confidence between the advisers and the Interim Council; and in March 1947, on Oliphant's advice, Wright was asked to go to England to consult on these troublesome matters. His report identified the 'time/ageing' factor, - that at the very best it would be four or five years before facilities could be provided in Canberra, during which time science and people might change greatly; following his report, the advisers were constituted as an Academic Advisory Committee to co-operate with the Interim Council in the whole process of constituting and establishing the University. From this plan stemmed the early appointment of staff, among them Professors Fenner and Albert, to work pro tem in host laboratories, and schemes for unbonded scholarships and fellowships in the areas of interest of the four schools so that students denied further study and training in Australia or overseas by the war, could further their careers.

From it, too, came a plan for the four Advisers to come to Canberra early in 1948. This objective was two fold: to consult with the Interim Council, and, importantly to meet with, and expose their plans for the research schools to, a wide circle representative of the various disciplines, brought together in Canberra over easter of that year, and to discuss the possible interplay of relationships with the established institutions. In the area of medical research, these discussions in which Wright played an important part, were especially helpful in modifying some sense of insecurity in the allocation of Commonwealth grants.

In 1976, Wright honoured the University by submitting his scientific papers published in the previous decade for examination in the normal way for the degree of Doctor of Science. In preparing the wording of the degree certificate to be presented on his admission to that degree (and because the Statute required that candidates have a substantial connection with the University) we decided on the following preamble, which may now serve as our memorial of him. It uses an unusual and not very elegant word, nonetheless agreed among us as including not only the concept of an idea, but of the carrying out of that idea: -

Roy Douglas Wright
closely identified with the
of the University
and a member of its governing
since the University's foundation .....

Original publication

Citation details

Ross Hohnen, 'Wright, Sir Roy Douglas (Pansy) (1907–1990)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 July 2024.

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