Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Whitfeld, Hubert Edwin (1875–1939)

by Fred Alexander

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Hubert Edwin Whitfeld (1875-1939), university vice-chancellor, was born on 14 March 1875 in Sydney, seventh child of Edwin Whitfeld, schoolmaster, and his wife Eleanor, née Cooke, both English born. Educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1897), he graduated with first-class honours in classics and philosophy, and was university medallist in classics. After teaching for two years, he studied engineering (B.E., 1902) at the university. Whitfeld then went to Western Australia where he spent the next ten years as a metallurgist and mine-manager in the Murchison district. On 17 June 1912 he married Frances Matilda Zahel at St Paul's Retreat, Glen Osmond, Adelaide. When the University of Western Australia was established in 1913 he was appointed foundation professor of mining and engineering. In 1916-19 he worked for the British Ministry of Munitions, as an inspector of munitions in the United States of America and as a technical adviser in the Explosives Supply Department, London.

By the University of Western Australia's process of rotation, Whitfeld was vice-chancellor in 1913-15 and 1925-27. Retaining his philosophic interests, he deliberately sought to maintain a close correlation between scientific and humanitarian studies. His policy ensured a measure of unity and inter-faculty co-operation, but was not always appreciated by such colleagues as the chemist N. T. M. Wilsmore, though it was strongly supported by other foundation professors like (Sir) Walter Murdoch. In 1927 Whitfeld was appointed first permanent vice-chancellor and was to hold that office until his death. Under his direction, in the early 1930s the university moved to its attractive site by the Swan River at Crawley. Aided by the munificent bequests of Sir John Hackett and in collaboration with the architect Rodney Alsop and the gardeners Oliver Dowell and George Munns, Whitfeld contributed much to the layout and landscaping of the campus.

Academic administration was severely restricted by World War I and by the Depression. Whitfeld's expansion of the university's art collection and his establishment of residential facilities for both male and female students aroused some opposition. Such criticisms were more than offset by his imaginative leadership and personally persuasive influence: 'He charmed as Socrates charmed. His infectious gaiety of spirit and of mind dissolved any barrier of years'. A former president of the University of Sydney undergraduates' association, the vice-chancellor attracted the active support of young people, even if some of them were later to complain that Whitfeld did not always live up to the expectations he had encouraged in them. In retrospect, his contemporaries subscribed to the view that his greatness lay in the fact that his mind was never closed to an idea, nor his door to a colleague.

Though not a 'conference man', he played his part—despite the disabilities imposed by distance—in the interstate co-operation of the handful of Australian universities. More significant for the university was the close relationship which developed between Whitfeld and the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Dr F. Keppel. The frequent award of Carnegie travelling fellowships to the teaching staff enabled them to take advantage of the sabbatical leave which Whitfeld recommended to offset the isolation of Crawley. Another beneficiary was the university's adult education board and, particularly, its library: successive grants to the latter were consistent with Whitfeld's view of the young university's service to the community at large and in accord with emphasis he gave to the range and quality of undergraduate teaching rather than to costly and specialized research.

Despite his charm, Whitfeld was not prominent in social functions outside the university. He preferred to devote his leisure to Evoe, a small vineyard he cultivated at Upper Swan, the homestead of which had been designed for him by Alsop. Whitfeld was appointed C.B.E. in 1933. Survived by his wife, he died on 31 July 1939 in Perth and was cremated with Anglican rites. A memorial bust (1965) by John Dowie stands in the court which bears Whitfeld's name at the university.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • Australian Quarterly, 4, no 4, Dec 1940
  • West Australian, 1 Aug 1939, 12 Apr 1965
  • W. Somerville, A Blacksmith Looks at a University (State Library of Western Australia and University of Western Australia Library).

Citation details

Fred Alexander, 'Whitfeld, Hubert Edwin (1875–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitfeld-hubert-edwin-9082/text16011, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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