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Robert Leslie Dunbabin (1869–1949)

by K. H. Waters

This article was published:

Robert Leslie Dunbabin (1869-1949), classical scholar, was born on 16 July 1869 at Cambridge, Tasmania, son of John Dunbabin, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Murdoch. He was a cousin of T. C. Dunbabin. Educated at The Hutchins School, Hobart, in 1886-88, he won a Tasmanian government scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, England, where he studied classics, graduating B.A. in 1892. In 1894-95 he taught at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, then at The Hutchins School in 1897-1901 before accepting a lectureship in mental and moral science at the University of Tasmania. He was temporary associate professor of classics at the University of Adelaide in 1905; he returned to Hobart next year as lecturer in classics and modern history in addition to mental and moral science. Promoted assistant professor in 1914 he was appointed to the chair when the classics and English departments were separated in 1917. On his retirement in 1940 he was made emeritus professor.

Dunbabin was highly regarded as a scholar. A typical philologist of the old school he nevertheless displayed a wide range of interests outside the classical languages, with a passion for accuracy in detail. He contributed many short notes to the Classical Review and Classical Quarterly on small but often important points of etymology, paleography and lexicography as well as geographical, zoological and even mechanical matters. In correspondence he offered many items for the revision of H. G. Liddell and R. Scott's Greek-English Lexicon. But he never discussed the literary qualities of classical texts or general interpretations of ancient history despite his close knowledge. He published no monographs. Former pupils recall his demanding standards of accuracy. He was equally critical of fellow classicists, writing disparagingly of A. E. Housman's appointment as Regius Professor at Cambridge and of Jack Lindsay's translation of the poetry of Gaius Catullus (1929). The same concern for meticulous scholarship motivated his bitter opposition to courses in 'classical civilization' or 'classics in translation'. This rigidity may well have made him unsuitable as a vice-chancellor, which position, attained in 1933, he soon relinquished 'on medical advice'. However, he took a leading part in university administration as a member of the professorial board (1914-39), the Rhodes scholarship committee (1922-47) and the university council (1921-26 and 1933).

Dunbabin wrote everything down. Communications on small matters with local colleagues became formal letters. Diaries contain detail about garden-planting, phone-calls, tram-fares or expenses on occasional outings with ladies. Unmarried, and adhering to no religious faith, he died on 15 October 1949 leaving an estate valued for probate at £7709; he was buried at Bream Creek, the home of his parents for many years. His library, which included the complete works of P. G. Wodehouse, was left to the university with the proviso that the books were only to be used by the professor of classics. A classical scholarship for which he provided £5000 had conditions so stringent they had to be legally amended before any candidate could appear.

Select Bibliography

  • Mercury (Hobart), 17 Oct 1949
  • Dunbabin papers (University of Tasmania)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

K. H. Waters, 'Dunbabin, Robert Leslie (1869–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 July, 1869
Cambridge, Tasmania, Australia


15 October, 1949 (aged 80)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.