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Currie, Sir George Alexander (1896–1984)

by D. E. Hutchison

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

Sir George Alexander Currie (1896-1984), agricultural scientist and university vice-chancellor, was born on 13 August 1896 at Windyhills farm, Grange, Banffshire, Scotland, second son of George Currie, a blacksmith journeyman and later a tenant farmer, and his wife Mary, née Craib. The family belonged to the Free Church of Scotland and George was to remain a devout Presbyterian. He attended the local school and won a scholarship to Keith Grammar School, where he was dux of the intermediate school (1911) and science medallist (1912 and 1914). Through living and working on the farm he developed an interest in agriculture. After the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the 6th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. He served in France in 1915-16, but was invalided to Britain suffering from diphtheria. In 1919 he was discharged from the army as a sergeant instructor.

Government assistance for ex-servicemen and a grant from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace enabled Currie to study at the University of Aberdeen (B.Sc., 1923; B.Ag.Sc., 1923; D.Sc., 1936). He graduated with first-class honours in zoology and geology. On 5 April 1923 at the United Free Church, Inverurie, he married Margaret Smith, his geology lecturer. They migrated to Queensland and joined a cousin of Margaret at Koumala, near Mackay, where in 1923-26 Currie managed a sugar plantation.

Joining the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock as an assistant-entomologist in 1926, Currie carried out investigations into cotton pests. Three years later he took a post in Canberra with the division of economic entomology, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. His work on the biological control of noxious weeds established his reputation as a research scientist and in 1935 he was made officer-in-charge of the weeds investigation section. In 1937, while on a trip to Britain, Europe and the United States of America, he visited Algeria and collected seeds of a grass, Dactylis glomerata. It would later be grown widely as pasture in New South Wales and Victoria and become known as Currie cocksfoot. That year he was promoted to principal research scientist.

In 1939 Currie was appointed Hackett professor of agriculture and director of the institute of agriculture at the University of Western Australia. Succeeding Hubert Whitfeld, he took on additional administrative duties as part-time vice-chancellor in September next year. In 1945 he reported on rural training for returned service personnel for the Commonwealth Department of Post-war Reconstruction. As full-time vice-chancellor from 1945, during a period of rapid growth for the university, he formed a good relationship with the Liberal premier, (Sir) Ross McLarty, who was also State treasurer. The under-treasurer, (Sir) Alexander Reid, was another member of the university senate. Supported by the chancellor, (Sir) Walter Murdoch, and the registrar, Colsell Sanders, Currie was, according to the historian Fred Alexander, `peculiarly well placed to turn immediate difficulties into continuing opportunities’. In 1950 the relationships with McLarty and Reid were put to the test when proposals for university expansion caused the premier and under-treasurer to assert that the government should decide how additional funds would be spent. Currie insisted that the senate retain the right to determine university policy, including its fields of growth, and rejected the premier’s proposal that university budgets be reviewed in a similar way to those of government departments. The degree of government interference was reduced; Alexander observed later that `the outcome was a tribute both to the firmness of Dr Currie’s stand on this issue of University autonomy and to the moderation and responsiveness of Mr McLarty’.

Through his administrative skills and his genial, outgoing personality, Currie improved the university’s public relations. He relished contacts with people in all walks of life. With his wife, he frequently held open house for staff and students at their official residence, Tuart House. Despite his abstemiousness, these occasions were always convivial. He was chairman (1949-51) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, and a member of the executive council (1949-61) of the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth.

In 1952 Currie was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of New Zealand, which then comprised four university colleges. His office was located in Wellington. Devolution had already been proposed; the constituent colleges were in agreement but the university senate was divided on the issue. In 1954-57 he prepared a series of analyses which enabled the senate to devise a new system, based on autonomous universities and a university grants committee to administer matters of common concern and to negotiate with the government on their behalf. The reorganisation eventuated in 1961. Currie was knighted in 1960 and next year, at its final congregation, the University of New Zealand conferred on him an honorary LL D. He had previously been awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Aberdeen (1948), Western Australia (1952) and Melbourne (1954), and Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada (1958).

In 1960-62 Currie chaired the commission on education in New Zealand. His amiability, tact and courtesy, as well as his skills as a chairman, made it easy for all to have their views heard and considered. The commission’s recommendations, almost all of which were adopted, were the blueprint for educational development in schools and universities for a quarter of a century. Currie had a broad-ranging mind; in his J. M. Macrossan lecture (1947) he had confessed that he shared `with all other scientists the charge that we have been too devoted to science and too little concerned with that humanity which is more important than science’.

Sir George retired in 1962 and he and his wife settled in Canberra. In 1963-64 he chaired a commission on higher education in Papua and New Guinea that led to the establishment there of a university; it awarded him an honorary LL D in 1967. He was chairman of the Canberra Theatre Trust (1964-68), of the Literature Censorship Appeal Board (1964-67), and of advisory committees of the Canberra Public Library Service (1963-70) and the local hospital. Engaged in 1964 by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s executive as a consultant on the development of its archives, he wrote The Origins of CSIRO (1966) with the assistance of John Graham. In 1966-67 he chaired a working party that inquired into education in the Australian Capital Territory; its report set the basic principles and patterns for the ACT Schools Authority. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 4 May 1984 in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (1963)
  • Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5 (2000)
  • Canberra Times, 8 May 1984, p 12
  • University of Western Australia Archives.

Citation details

D. E. Hutchison, 'Currie, Sir George Alexander (1896–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/currie-sir-george-alexander-12384/text22257, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 August 2016.

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

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