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Rowe, Albert Percival (1898–1976)

by Hugh Stretton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Albert Percival Rowe (1898-1976), radar pioneer and university vice-chancellor, was born on 23 March 1898 at Launceston, Cornwall, England, son of Albert Rowe, sewing-machine agent, and his wife Mary Annie, née Goudge. Young Albert attended the Portsmouth Dockyard School and studied physics at the Royal College of Science, University of London (B.Sc. Hons, 1922). He joined a defence science unit of the Air Ministry, and lectured part time (1927-37) at the Imperial College of Science and Technology. On 18 June 1932 at the parish church, Beckenham, Kent, he married Mary Gordon Mathews, a 26-year-old solicitor; they had no children.

From 1935 Rowe was secretary of the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, formed under the chairmanship of (Sir) Henry Tizard to evaluate research in radio direction finding. In 1938-45 he was chief superintendent of the organization which became the Telecommunications Research Establishment and which led much of the development of radar. It employed more than 3000 people, and had to work closely but secretly with the armed services, Treasury, manpower authorities, manufacturers of the new radar devices and their operational users. Rowe was appointed C.B.E. in 1942.

To reconcile inventive research with extensive bureaucratic co-ordination, Rowe developed a management model to which he ascribed much of the success of radar in World War II. He believed that the head of such an enterprise should shape its policies in regular meetings with a small group of leaders—outstanding researchers and divisional heads from within the enterprise and, when necessary, from other institutions. Their sessions should be informal to allow uninhibited mutual criticism. The chief executive would appoint most of the leaders and act alone if they failed to agree. In other respects he was merely primus inter pares, the executor of the whole company's best ideas. Inspiration and command would flow down from that leadership to the ranks of second- and third-rate people (his words) whose talents rightly matched their plainer tasks. Even potential leaders among them should obey and learn while they were young and inexperienced. Rowe insisted that, in a large institution, 'be it a university or any other, the transmission lines of enthusiasm must start at the top and be unbroken'.

In 1946 Rowe moved to Australia as chief scientific officer for the British rocket programme; in the following year he was appointed scientific adviser to the Department of Defence. On 1 May 1948 he became, by invitation, the first full-time vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide. Friends warned him that the university 'had known great days and great men but that in-breeding and impoverishment had reduced its stature'. It was Australia's worst-financed university. It had next to no research students. There was little graduate support, no public-relations and no long-term planning. Its staff had poor pay, poor research funds, no retiring age and inadequate superannuation. A table in the student-union refectory provided their only social meeting-place.

Rowe described his first two years as vice-chancellor as a 'happy honeymoon'. By reproachful comparisons with other States he persuaded Premier (Sir) Thomas Playford to double the university's annual grant. His and others' initiatives achieved a staff retiring age and adequate superannuation, higher salaries, half time for research, better research funding, frequent study leave for approved purposes, and twenty-eight new academic positions. One newcomer celebrated the conditions as 'American pay, British intellectual freedom and Australian study leave'. Rowe also created a staff club, but had an early rebuff when he was not allowed to exclude lecturers and tutors from it. He gave the union an admirable full-time warden, who disappointed him by refusing to 'shop' or punish unruly students.

'A.P.' disliked student misbehaviour, and radical politics which might antagonize governments. The students resisted censorship, and some regretted losing the academics from their refectory. When the Himalayan 'abominable snowman' appeared in the news, the vice-chancellor was dubbed 'the abominable Roweman'. One morning gigantic yellow footprints led from his house across the campus, through a public lavatory, and up the side and steep roof of the Elder Hall to a life-sized female figure on its weather-vane. Despite all, Rowe and his wife were generally friendly to students and liked their company.

Within three years Rowe had radically improved the university, but not realized his own vision of it. He wanted great scientific research, and believed that it could only come under outstanding leadership: scientists 'of world stature' must be attracted, mostly from Britain, as deans and heads of research centres; they should concentrate resources on a few major projects and thus attract talented researchers. Those outstanding performers should have higher pay. The existing professors should chiefly teach and administer. In his published account, If the Gown Fits (Melbourne, 1960), Rowe expressed contempt for research in the humanities and scarcely mentioned the social sciences.

The strategy did not please many of the professors, nor was it adopted. Frustrated, Rowe gave two years notice in 1956. Chairman (1954-55) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, he helped to persuade Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies to commission the inquiry, chaired by Sir Keith Murray, from which Federal funding of Australian universities followed. Rowe was not offered a hoped-for role in that work. On 1 May 1958 he retired. Returning to England, he lived at Malvern, Worcestershire, the last location of his great radar enterprise. He died on 25 May 1976 in Bromyard Hospital, Linton, Herefordshire, and was cremated; his wife survived him. Rex Bramleigh's portrait of Rowe is held by the University of Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • M. M. Finnis, The Lower Level (Adel, 1975)
  • Times (London), 31 May 1976
  • correspondence file, no 364, 1947-76 (University of Adelaide).

Citation details

Hugh Stretton, 'Rowe, Albert Percival (1898–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rowe-albert-percival-11572/text20655, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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