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Blackwood, Sir Robert Rutherford (1906–1982)

by Ian D. Rae

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Robert Rutherford Blackwood (1906-1982), businessman, professor of engineering and university chancellor, was born on 3 June 1906 at South Yarra, Melbourne, eldest of three children of Tasmanian-born parents Robert Leslie Blackwood, schoolteacher, and his wife Muriel Pearl, née Henry. Robert senior was later (1920-26) classics tutor and sub-warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne. (Dame) Margaret Blackwood was Robert junior’s sister. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (BEE, 1929; BCE, 1930; MCE, 1932), he obtained a post in 1928 as testing officer in the university’s faculty of engineering. By 1929 he was senior demonstrator in strength and elasticity of materials. He wrote a thesis for his master’s degree and several journal articles on the strength of electric arc welds, using statistics in ways that were new to his discipline. In 1930-33 he lectured in agricultural engineering.

On 5 November 1932 at the chapel of his old school, Blackwood married Hazel Levenia McLeod. Next year he was appointed a research engineer with the Dunlop Perdriau Rubber Co. Ltd; he was promoted in 1939 to technical manager. In 1946 he returned to the university as professor of mechanical engineering and dean of the faculty, but in 1948 was drawn back to industry as general manager of Dunlop Rubber Australia Ltd, a position he held until his retirement in 1966. He continued as a member of the board of Dunlop Australia Ltd and, as chairman in 1972-79, guided the company in its recovery after a lean period. Additionally, he was a director (1966-80) of Humes Ltd.

Blackwood had maintained his connection with the university through his membership of the council (1951-63) and several of its committees: buildings (1953-61), which he chaired in 1954-56; finance (1953-61); and future development. He took the visionary step of drawing up a budget for the university covering the years 1953-70, and played a key part in managing a substantial building program in the 1950s. His greatest contribution to academic life, however, came after the Victorian government announced in January 1958 his appointment as chairman of an interim council responsible for establishing the State’s second university. Named after Sir John Monash, the institution officially opened in March 1961. Blackwood was knighted in June. When the permanent council assumed office next month, he became chancellor.

The Monash University Act of 1958 had made it clear that priority was to be given to the provision of courses in applied science and technology, these classes being seriously overcrowded at the University of Melbourne. Blackwood and his colleagues complied but from the outset saw the need to cater for all branches of learning; in particular, they identified a requirement for a faculty of education (established 1965). Their submissions to the Victorian government and the Australian Universities Commission were marked by the detailed compilation and analysis of data that typified Blackwood’s working methods. Projections of student numbers and costs, building plans and the choice of a site for the university all benefited from this approach, as did the selection of the initial staff and the fixing of their conditions of employment.

Blackwood ensured that a master plan was prepared for the site and buildings; its main features, despite successive revisions, can be seen in the Monash campus at Clayton. The buildings lie for the most part inside a ring-road, and the faculties of medicine, science and engineering occupy contiguous positions. The older buildings are connected by a system of service tunnels—truly an engineer’s university.

The interim council appointed (Sir) Louis Matheson as Monash University’s first vice-chancellor. He had been a professorial colleague of Blackwood’s at the University of Melbourne, and the ethos of the three engineers—Monash, Blackwood and Matheson—strongly influenced the development of the university. Blackwood stepped down as chancellor in 1968. That year he published Monash University, an account of the institution’s first ten years. The university named its great hall after him and at the opening of the building in 1971 conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of laws.

A trustee (from 1964) of the National Museum of Victoria, Blackwood was chairman of trustees (1968-70) and of the newly formed council (1971-78). He took part in archaeological digs conducted by the museum and established the Robert Blackwood Fund for Scientific Research, which he supported financially. In 1973-74 he was president of the Royal Society of Victoria. He helped to establish the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, of which he was a founder trustee, in 1967; the university made him a life trustee and in 1978 awarded him an honorary doctorate of technology. His work as a member (from 1948) and president (1951-67) of the council of Sandringham Technical School, and as a trustee (from 1951) and chairman (1961-75) of the Dafydd Lewis Trust further expressed his commitment to education. He was a fellow (1968) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, which awarded him the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal in 1964 for his notable contributions to the science and practice of engineering in Australia. In 1972 the University of Melbourne awarded him the (W. C.) Kernot medal for distinguished engineering achievement.

Blackwood’s associates described him as a friendly man who discharged his multifarious duties with skill and enthusiasm, but who was not one to show emotion. His interests were intense and varied. He prepared models for his engineering classes, travelled to archaeological sites in South-East Asia, gathered sea shells in remote locations, and drew maps for a guidebook, Beautiful Bali (1970), which he wrote about his favourite holiday destination. A feature of the book was the thoroughness with which it recorded distances, described the layouts of buildings and discussed social customs, thus providing an example in the public domain of the attention to detail that characterised his professional career. He painted, played the piano, worked in wood and metal, bound books in hand-tooled leather and tended his garden. `Life doesn’t mean much unless you take an interest in everything’, he said in 1958 as he took up his Monash appointment; a friend commented later that he never did things by halves.

Sir Robert died on 21 August 1982 at Brighton and was cremated. His wife and their son and daughter survived him. On 10 September the Monash community gathered in Robert Blackwood Hall to commemorate his life and work.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Poynter and C. Rasmussen, A Place Apart (1996)
  • Robert Rutherford Blackwood, 1906-1982 (1982)
  • Journal of the Institution of Engineers Australia, vol 36, no 12, 1964, p N95
  • Engineers Australia, 1 Oct 1982, p 10
  • Australian, 19 Nov 1979, p 10
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian D. Rae, 'Blackwood, Sir Robert Rutherford (1906–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blackwood-sir-robert-rutherford-12219/text21913, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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