Key 62: The University and World War II 1939-1945


The contributions made by the University of Melbourne to the war effort from 1939 to 1945 were many and various. Among the most notable was the production of optical munitions which involved close collaboration of staff in Chemistry, Physics and Botany (most notably Hartung, Laby and Turner).

A high security radio section drew on Physics, Mathematics and Metallurgy (Greenwood). The Engineering workshops became a munitions annexe and professor A.F. Burstall developed a successful gas-producer to keep cars on the roads without need of petrol. Geology (Hills) and Agriculture (Wadham) were involved in strategic mapping and a whole range of special teaching courses were developed. The Colleges were almost entirely given over to the RAAF.

Dr J.S. Rogers (3rd from right), member of the Optical Munitions Panel
Optical Munitions Panel, c1943. [Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1557]

A number of senior staff were seconded for varying periods to serve the war effort in a wide variety of roles. Among them, Professor R M (Max) Crawford (History) became First Secretary of the Australian embassy in the Soviet Union and George Browne (Education) the Chief Censor for Victoria.

Professor Wadham (Agriculture) was called to lead the Rural Reconstruction Commission, W. Macmahon Ball (Political Science) to head Radio Australia and Vice-Chancellor Medley became a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and chair of the Services Education Council. Professor R.D. Wright (Physiology) among a number of posts (including work with Alf Conlon’s unit) joined Crawford on the Committee of National Morale and the anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson returned to Arnhem Land to prepare an Aboriginal force to resist Japanese invaders. Professor Bernard Heinze (Music) spent most of the war on loan to the ABC conducting orchestral concerts for the services and the general public. Professors D.B. Copland (Commerce), L.F. Giblin (Economics) and K. Bailey (Law) went to senior positions in Canberra from which they did not return.

History Department, V-E Day, 1945, Max Crawford (centre)
History Department, V-E Day, 1945, Max Crawford (centre)
[Source: University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue, UMA-I-1961]