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Darwin, Donald Victor (1896–1972)

by Don Chambers

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Donald Victor Darwin (1896-1972), civil engineer, was born on 11 October 1896 at Redhill, South Australia, son of Henry Darwin, a native-born bank manager, and his wife Jessie Louise Cleta, née Gmeiner. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, and the University of Melbourne (B.C.E., 1920; M.C.E., 1926), he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 3 January 1916. He reached France in November as a sapper in the 10th Field Company, Engineers. From 28 March to 1 April 1918 at Buire, near Albert, he reconnoitred front-line posts while under heavy fire and was awarded the Military Medal. He was discharged in Melbourne on 25 May 1919.

Joining the infant Country Roads Board of Victoria, Darwin was appointed assistant-engineer in 1920 and bridge engineer in 1924. One of his major projects was to design the Princes Highway's crossing of the Barwon River. In 1929 he was promoted to assistant chief engineer. He contributed significantly to the C.R.B.'s plan to meet the needs of the automobile era by constructing a system of 'low cost' motor roads. That task involved systematic experiments on the road-building qualities of a wide variety of locally-occurring soils and rocks, and the development of efficient machinery and streamlined techniques for the construction of bitumen surfaces on arterial motor routes.

On 1 March 1930 Darwin married a 24-year-old music teacher Evelyn Hope Scott at the Presbyterian Church, Malvern. Appointed chief engineer in 1940, he brought his versatility to the building requirements of munitions facilities and airfields in Victoria, and to defence-related constructions in the Northern Territory (including the Stuart Highway). His appointment to the three-member board of the C.R.B. in 1945 reflected respect for his engineering and administrative capacities.

During the stressful period of postwar reconstruction, in 1949 Darwin became chairman of the C.R.B., while continuing to lecture and examine in civil engineering at his old university. He supervised a major upgrading of the State's roads and bridges system, and helped the C.R.B. to plan for the advent of high-density, urban, motor traffic and heavy-duty freeways to link major population centres.

Articulate and dedicated, with uncommon intellectual ability and a prodigious memory, Darwin was a demanding administrator, capable of visionary and encouraging leadership. He was not, however, a master of the arts of political compromise or expediency, and some blamed him for a decline in C.R.B. influence. One protégé described him as 'an academic person . . . quite shy but humorous . . . a hard person to get to know'. That painful shyness, a notoriously clammy and limp handshake, and a devout Anglican's moral scrupulousness contributed to Darwin's difficulties in relating to State and municipal politicians.

Having retired in 1962, he assisted the Australian Road Research Board. That year he won the Kernot medal. He was appointed I.S.O. in 1963 and awarded the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal in 1966 by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, an organization he had served as president in 1957. Survived by his wife and daughter, Darwin died on 8 March 1972 at Malvern and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $123,692.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1945, 2 Sept 1950, 11 Sept 1953
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Mar 1949
  • Herald (Melbourne), 10 July 1950, 1 Feb 1956
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Apr 1957, 24 July 1962, 10 Mar 1972
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June 1963, 25 Nov 1966
  • D. Chambers, From Bullock Tracks to Bitumen (manuscript, State Library of Victoria)
  • Country Roads Board (Victoria) records (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Don Chambers, 'Darwin, Donald Victor (1896–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/darwin-donald-victor-9903/text17533, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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