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Robinson, Frederick Walter (1888–1971)

by Nancy Bonnin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Frederick Walter Robinson (1888-1971), university teacher, was born in Sydney on 21 October 1888, second youngest of seven surviving children of Joseph Kitson Robinson, joiner, and his wife Jenny, née Horne, both from devout English evangelical families. Fred's impoverished, indomitable mother imbued her children with rigid, religiously inspired beliefs in good works and self-improvement with a harsh bleakness which often shadowed his ebullient and affectionate nature.

He was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A. Hons, and M.A. Hons, 1910), where he won prizes and scholarships in English and classics. On the Cooper travelling scholarship he studied at the University of Jena, Germany, and in 1912 was awarded a Ph.D., magna cum laude, for a thesis in German on Roman history.

In 1913 Dr Robinson was appointed assistant professor of modern languages at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra. In World War I he organized courses in intelligence until he enlisted in September 1915 and, influenced by the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill', joined the 8th Field Ambulance, Australian Imperial Force. He was commissioned and promoted honorary captain, and from January 1917 served as intelligence officer with the 5th Division. He was wounded and mentioned in dispatches. In July 1918 he was appointed to the Australian Corps School and subsequently to the Education Service School, becoming assistant director of education, A.I.F. depots in Britain.

Robinson married Catherine Campbell Robertson-Glasgow, a voluntary hospital worker, on 14 May 1919 in St Philip's Church of England, Kensington, London, before returning to Duntroon. His enthusiasm for the national capital—he had, as the writer David Malouf said of him, a devotion to place—led to his small book, Canberra's First Hundred Years (1924). It introduces his lifelong study and preservation of Australiana.

On 15 February 1923 Robinson was appointed lecturer in English and German at the University of Queensland. During World War II he served briefly as a major in intelligence, then as a censor. Under J. D. Story's austere administration, Robinson's promotion to associate professor of English only came in 1946; he retired as head of department in 1958. In 1968 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters. He was a vigorous public citizen and held executive positions in several of Brisbane's cultural organizations. He was chairman of the John Oxley Memorial Committee and the instigating founder of the Fryer Memorial Library of Australian Literature, which began in a cedar, glass-fronted bookcase in his university office. These fine research libraries are his best memorial.

'Doc Robbie' to his students, he had what was once called the universal mind. He was a perfectionist and much of his research never reached printed form, although a wealth of manuscript material is held in the Fryer Library. He looked for the intimate associations of art and literature with the history of communities and their physical environment. He was ever ready to associate things of value from different cultures, such as a Greek amphitheatre and an Aboriginal bora ring. He had an upright, soldierly stance, a figure of moderate height and a physiognomy which was the delight of cartoonists. David Rowbotham described him in 'The Professor':

And, rising from the academic gloom,
Prominently quaint, a Roman face,
Like an elliptic moon reflecting light
Of knowledge, wrinkled with a cultured grace.

Robinson died in Brisbane on 26 August 1971 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light and Learning (Brisb, 1985)
  • H. Gregory, Vivant Professores (Brisb, 1987)
  • F. W. Robinson collection (University of Queensland Library)
  • State Library of Queensland Archives
  • bibliography of Robinson's publications (copy on ADB file)
  • private information.

Citation details

Nancy Bonnin, 'Robinson, Frederick Walter (1888–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-frederick-walter-8243/text14395, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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