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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Austin, Mervyn Neville (1913–1991)

by John Melville-Jones

This article was published online in 2014

Mervyn Austin, by Susan Watkins, 1962

Mervyn Austin, by Susan Watkins, 1962

State Library of Western Australia,

Mervyn Neville Austin (1913-1991), headmaster and professor of classics, was born on 1 August 1913 at Ascot Vale, Victoria, second of four sons of James William Ashworth Austin, real-estate agent, and his wife Jane Elizabeth, née Tymms. Mervyn was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1935) where he earned a Blue for cricket. The award of a Rhodes Scholarship in 1935 took him to Christ Church College, Oxford, to read classics (MA, 1939). On returning to Australia in 1939 he became senior classics master at his old school.

Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 15 August 1941, Austin trained in Australia, Canada, and Britain and was commissioned in May 1942. From March 1943 to September 1944 he navigated Mosquito fighters in day and night operations with No. 456 Squadron, RAAF. His commanding officer admired his ‘pleasing personality’ and ‘highly developed sense of moral discipline’ (NAA A9300). He was demobilised as a temporary flight lieutenant on 30 August 1946. On 29 April 1944 at the Cathedral Church of Winchester, England, Austin had married Rosemary Belle im Thurn, an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Appointed to a lectureship at the University of St Andrew’s, Scotland, in 1946, he did not return to Australia until 1950.

Following a brief stint as headmaster (1950-51) of Newington College, Sydney, Austin was appointed to the chair of classics and ancient history at the University of Western Australia in 1952. The only full-time member of staff, he worked hard to increase student numbers. A gifted and versatile teacher, he offered courses in classical Greek, Latin, Greek and Roman history, and New Testament Greek. By the late 1970s the department boasted nine full-time members of staff and almost four hundred students, including twelve postgraduate students. He retired as emeritus professor in 1978 and was appointed AM in 1981.

From 1956 until 1978 Austin served as public orator at the University of Western Australia, delivering citations and addresses at graduation ceremonies and other formal occasions. A selection of his citations for the awarding of honorary degrees was published as Certain Persons of Importance (1981). His wide-ranging research interests included eighteenth-century studies, to the classical origins of Western civilisation, and from Western Australian church history to St John’s Gospel. His book of essays, An Ignorant Man Thinking, was published in 1966. Several of his lectures and addresses, including a short biography, John Wollaston: Man of God (1986), were also published.

Austin’s enthusiasm and advocacy for his subject led him to give a wide range of extension courses, addresses to community groups, and radio broadcasts. This encouraged many mature people to study classics at university level. The breadth of his learning was such that he also gave courses in English literature and theology (in 1951 he had gained a bachelor of divinity degree from the University of London). In retirement he gave talks to primary school classes for gifted children and taught Latin at Scotch College, Perth.

A dedicated lay member of the Anglican Church, he was a frequent guest preacher at University Sundays and he served on the council of Christ Church Grammar School, Claremont, and St Hilda’s Church of England (later Anglican) Girls’ School, Mosman Park. He was a strong supporter of the ordination of women.

Survived by his wife, daughter, and two sons, Austin died on 11 June 1991 at Claremont and was cremated. The Mervyn Austin Bursary for ancient Greek and the Austin lecture theatre at the University of Western Australia commemorate his work.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Austin, Mervyn Neville. Interview by Christine Shervington, 1981. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Civic Centre News (Cottesloe, WA). ‘An Appreciation: Emeritus Professor, M. N. Austin.’ 42, no. 12 (1991): 10
  • Dalziell, Rosamund. ‘Demanding to See Sophocles.’ Canberra Times, 31 October 1998, 5
  • Dalziell, Rosamund. Personal communication with author
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Austin, M. N.
  • National Library of Australia, MS 9098, Papers of Mervyn Austin, 1981-1995
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Uni News (Perth, WA). ‘Obituary.’ 10, no. 20 (1991): 4
  • West Australian. ‘Studies in Classics.’ 15 February 1952, 3.

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Melville-Jones, 'Austin, Mervyn Neville (1913–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 19 September 2020.

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