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Noel Dunbar - physicist and university administrator

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CollectionsANU Emeritus Faculty Oral History Project
Title: Noel Dunbar - physicist and university administrator
Author(s): Dunbar, Noel
Caton, Albert
Stewart, Peter
Keywords: Noel Dunbar
Emeritus Faculty
oral history
Date published: Dec-2010
Publisher: Canberra, ACT : Emeritus Faculty Inc., The Australian National University.
Noel Dunbar joined the Canberra University College from Melbourne University in 1959, as Professor of Physics. The College became the School of General Studies in 1960, when the Institute of Advanced Studies (which then constituted the Australian National University) merged with the College. In 1968 Professor Dunbar was appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor of ANU, which he then spent with frequent interludes as Acting Vice Chancellor. In 1977, Professor Dunbar was appointed Chair of the Australian Universities Council, a position he held until his retirement in 1987. He continued to chair the Churchill Fellowships selection committee for some years after. Noel Dunbar died in Canberra in April 2011. Interview Synopsis: David Noel Ferguson Dunbar, an only child, was born on Christmas Day1922 in Onehunga, a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand – and named ‘Noel’ for obvious reasons. Noel remained a New Zealand citizen (albeit having held and travelled on an Australian Official Passport for many years). Noel’s father Henry worked as a storeman in the New Zealand railways and his mother Elenor (nee Boddington) was a dressmaker. The family moved to Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island to accommodate Noel’s poor health. Noel’s father died from a heart attack in 1932, when Noel was 10 years old. In consequence, life was difficult for Noel and his mother during his teenage years. Noel attended St Clair’s Primary School where he finished as dux of the school. He was a foundation pupil of Kings High School – a new public high school in Dunedin – and was dux of that school too, matriculating in 1939. He excelled not only at academic pursuits at Kings but also played cricket for the school as its wicket keeper. From high school, Noel won an undergraduate scholarship to Otago University in Dunedin. His BSc and MSc degrees were conferred by the University of New Zealand (Otago University was at that time a college of UNZ). Noel served in the army during World War 2, though he did not see overseas service. In 1949, the final year of his MSc, Noel won a PhD scholarship to the University of Bristol in Wales, but in the absence of notification of that fact, joined the University of Melbourne as a temporary lecturer in physics. His mother, 67 at the time, accompanied him. They were to travel to Australia but the ship ran aground in Wellington Harbour as it set out, so they travelled instead by Sunderland flying boat from Auckland to Rose Bay in Sydney, finishing their journey to Melbourne by conventional (DC4) aircraft. In Melbourne, Noel completed a PhD in physics, studying nuclear collisions. From 1952 to 1953 he was a Fulbright post-doctoral fellow at Caltech in the USA, undertaking work on low-energy-collision nuclear physics. He returned to Melbourne in 1953 as a Senior Lecturer in Physics, where his research continued to focus on nuclear-particle collisions. He was involved in the construction of and research with the Physics Department’s two Van de Graff generators. In 1959 Noel was appointed Professor of Physics at Canberra University College, which was then still administered by Melbourne University. In 1960 the college and the Australian National University merged. Noel was one of the merged university’s six new science professors in undergraduate studies, which included David Brown (geology), Arthur Hambly (chemistry), Lindsay Pryor (botany) and Desmond Smyth (zoology). Cec Gibb (psychology – in those days the University of Melbourne required a science subject within their degree course – psychology was a popular option among non-science students) was already at the college. In 1968 Noel, interested more in academic administration and management than research or teaching, was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor of ANU, a role he occupied until he left the university in 1977 (as acting Vice-Chancellor at that time) to Chair the federal government’s Australian Universities Council. On retirement from that council (in 1987) he continued to chair the selection committee for Churchill Fellowships, finally retiring permanently in 19??. Post-retirement, he concentrated his interests on travel and epicurianism (and the camaraderie that accompanies such pursuits).


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