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Sir David Plumley Derham (1920–1985)

by Cecily Close

This article was published:

Sir David Plumley Derham (1920-1985), lawyer and vice-chancellor, was born on 13 May 1920 at Armadale, Melbourne, second son of Victorian-born parents Alfred Derham, medical practitioner, and his wife Frances Alexandra Mabel Letitia, née Anderson. Enid Derham was his aunt. After attending Trinity Grammar School and Scotch College, David entered the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1941) in 1938 and resided at Ormond College. He joined the Melbourne University Regiment on 1 November 1940. Rejected by the Royal Australian Air Force because of asthma, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 28 July 1941 and served as a trooper in an armoured regiment before being commissioned as a lieutenant in April 1942. From 1943 he performed air liaison and support duties at headquarters in New Guinea, the Netherlands East Indies and Borneo, and for brief periods with American forces in the Solomon Islands and the Philippines. He was appointed MBE (1947) for this work. A temporary major from December 1944, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 27 November 1945.

At St John’s Church of England, East Malvern, on 22 January 1944, Derham had married Rosemary Joan Brudenell, daughter of General Sir Brudenell White. Now determined to be a lawyer, he returned to the university in 1946 under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, and graduated LL B (1947) and LL M (1948) with first-class honours, the Supreme Court prize, and the E. J. B. Nunn scholarship. Articled to his uncle Francis Derham, he was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor on 3 November 1948; he signed the Bar roll on 5 August 1949. That year, already a tutor in law at Queen’s College, he became an independent lecturer in constitutional law in the university. He gained a reputation as an outstanding teacher.

In 1951 Derham succeeded (Sir) George Paton as professor of jurisprudence, lecturing also in constitutional law. He spent six months as a visiting fellow at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1953. Although impressed by the high standards achieved in British professional practice and postgraduate research, he detected little interest in studying the aims and methods of legal education. In the United States of America as a Carnegie travelling fellow (1953-54), he found at Harvard University `the best law school in the common law world’, and admired (not uncritically) many others for their vigour, standards and experi­mentation. Their libraries made the Melbourne law school’s seem `hopelessly inadequate’. He maintained contacts made during this trip, promoting staff and postgraduate exchanges and visits and returning himself in 1961 (as senior research fellow and visiting lecturer, University of Chicago, and visiting professor, Northwestern University). Working with Professor (Sir) Zelman Cowen, Derham adapted the US case method and moot court for Melbourne, despite limitations imposed by under-funding and increasing student numbers.

The numerous bodies in which Derham was an active participant included the Victorian Council of Legal Education (1951-68), Victorian Chief Justice’s Law Reform Committee (1951-68), Medico-Legal Society (1967-82; president 1963-64), Royal Melbourne Hospital board of management (1958-83), and Overseas Service Bureau (chairman, 1964-81). He occasionally gave legal advice within the university, was a member of its council (1961-63) and vice-chairman of the professorial board (1962-63). He had also retained a right of private practice. He regularly gave advice as a barrister and sometimes appeared in court. He was briefed as counsel (1962) in the Supreme Court of Victoria action to stay the execution of the convicted murderer Robert Peter Tait on grounds of insanity. Derham also served as constitutional law consultant to the Indian Law Institute (1958-59), and in 1960 investigated the administration of justice in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea for the minister for territories, (Sir) Paul Hasluck.

Meanwhile Derham was learning about the funding and functioning of Australian universities through membership of Commonwealth committees of inquiry into teaching costs in hospitals (1961-65), academic salaries (1964), and the future of tertiary education (the Martin Committee, which he joined in 1962 and for which he drafted the section of its report dealing with legal education). These committees provided guidance to the Australian Universities Commission, of which he was a member (1965-68).

In 1960 Derham wrote of the need for a second law school in Victoria and in 1964 became foundation dean and Sir Owen Dixon professor of law at Monash University. To mitigate the disadvantages of Monash’s distance from the facilities and professional contacts of the city, he sought full-time academic staff, a tutorial system, and the integration of practitioners into teaching and examining, and service on the faculty board. His initiatives achieved a staff/student ratio `more than twice as good’ as Melbourne’s. Non-legal courses to `open more windows to the legal mind’ were included in a three-year bachelor’s degree in jurisprudence, which was followed by a two-year bachelor’s degree in laws leading to admission to practice. Provision was made for specialisation, honours and postgraduate research, and combination with other disciplines was encouraged. Derham planned the law school building to accommodate his preferred maximum number of staff and students, with a spacious and well-organised library as its heart. He enlisted Emeritus Professor Frank Beasley to assist in developing the collection.

Derham edited the third (1964) and (with Paton) fourth (1972) editions of G. W. Paton’s A Textbook of Jurisprudence and was joint author with F. K. Maher and P. L. (Louis) Waller of An Introduction to Law and Cases and Materials on Legal Processes (1966). He contributed chapters to books and articles to Australian and overseas journals on law and legal education. In 1967 he was elected a member of the Social Science Research Council of Australia.

With `great qualms’, Derham admitted, he accepted the invitation to succeed Paton as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, taking up the post in March 1968. He knew of the administrative and financial problems besetting his old university, and of the dissatisfaction with which the AUC (through which the university had to negotiate for much of its funding) regarded its deficiencies. Their extent, and in particular that of the budget deficit, nevertheless shocked him on his arrival. Assuming these new responsibilities `the elegant professor’ (as a Herald journalist described him) determined to restore confidence in the university’s management, while also seeking additional funds, personally surveying departmental practices and needs, and pressing the case for cuts in expenditures wherever possible. For the longer term, with the support of senior colleagues, he decentralised aspects of academic administration and financial responsibility while also improving centralised recording, accounting and management. A personal priority was the adoption of a master plan to bring order and beauty to the campus. Yet the pressures of budget reductions were rarely stayed, and he spoke forcefully against universities’ increasing uncertainty and vulnerability to `intervention’, especially after 1974, when they became dependent on Commonwealth funding.

Derham freed himself as much as possible from direct management to concentrate on such matters with his characteristic mastery of detail, but constraints on delegation until late in his term ensured long evenings of paper work. Student activism added to his concerns. He saw this unrest as largely derivative, distinguishing the `planned attack’ from `youthful enthusiasm’. Though prepared to discuss issues affecting students, Derham was uncomfortable with large confrontational groups and found little common ground with many individual radicals. He believed that universities must retain intellectual freedom and some autonomy in order to serve society by pursuing and disseminating knowledge and maintaining high academic standards. Fortified by his own courage, foresight, perception of the university’s purpose, knowledge of the law and support of like-minded colleagues, Derham resisted both violent interference in the university’s affairs and the delegation of its defence to outside bodies. He preferred to invoke internal disciplinary procedures while not hesitating to call the police to the campus when he judged it necessary. His manner of dealing with these and other matters touching the university’s welfare, sometimes termed `legalistic’, was not supported by all.

On becoming vice-chancellor Derham had relinquished most outside activities. University-related committees, including the Melbourne Theatre Company (chairman 1972-82), the board of management of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (1968-82), and the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee (deputy chairman 1972-74; chairman 1975-76), replaced them. Increasingly, however, the pressures of office caused him to withdraw from much informal contact in the university. He could appear remote, to the regret of those who knew him not only as a hard-working, strong and effective executive, but as a charming and witty companion, a wise counsellor and a kindly man.

Having long experienced ill health, Derham retired in May 1982, receiving an honorary LL D from the University of Melbourne and the T. H. B. Symons award from the Association of Commonwealth Universities. In 1968 he had been appointed CMG and, in 1977, KBE. Monash had earlier recognised his achievements with an honorary LL D and by naming its law school after him. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and son, Sir David died of a chronic obstructive airways condition on 1 September 1985 at home in Toorak, and was buried in Templestowe cemetery. The University of Melbourne holds his portrait by Sir William Dargie. His last article, published posthumously, on the dismissal of the Whitlam government, won the 1986 Rogers Legal Writing Award.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Poynter and C. Rasmussen, A Place Apart (1996)
  • Law Institute Journal, vol 56, no 12, 1982, p 1024, vol 57, no 1, 1983, p 79, vol 59, no 11, 1985, p 1166
  • Monash University Law Review, vol 12, no 1, 1986, p 1
  • University Gazette, 30 June 1954
  • Australian, 25 Nov 1966, p 13, 18 Sept 1985, p 13
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 June 1975, p 12
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 July 1982, p 4
  • D. Beswick, interviews with D. Derham (1982), and Derham papers, and University Council Minute Books and official papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • L. Waller papers and official files (Monash University Archives).

Citation details

Cecily Close, 'Derham, Sir David Plumley (1920–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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