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Charles Melbourne Focken (1901–1978)

by F. J. Kendall

This article was published:

Charles Melbourne Focken (1901-1978), physicist and museum director, was born on 23 October 1901 at Kan Lung, Hong Kong, third of four sons of Charles Fredrick Focken, marine engineer, and his wife Elizabeth Edwards, née Gray. After Charles senior died from injuries sustained in a typhoon, the family settled in 1908 at Middle Park, Melbourne, where Charles attended the local state school. His studies at Wesley College (1914-18) and at the University of Melbourne (B Sc, 1923; BME, 1931), with residence at Queen's College, were studded with first-class honours, exhibitions, scholarships and prizes. Colours in tennis (a lifelong relaxation) and widespread leadership in student affairs saw him named as Rhodes scholar for 1923.

At Lincoln College, Oxford (D.Phil., 1926), Focken studied physics. Two events in England were decisive in his career. One was research under Sir Ernest (Baron) Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, which helped win his appointment in 1926 as the first Beverly-Mackenzie lecturer in physics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. The other was meeting Elizabeth Sills whom he married with Methodist forms in Queen's College chapel, Parkville, Melbourne, on 21 December 1927.

Of less than average height, Focken had an athletic figure; premature baldness enhanced his image as an intellectual, and a ready, engaging smile led to cherubic comparisons. Although he never became a relaxed or stimulating speaker, his carefully prepared lectures imbued students with the importance of a logical approach. He had a zest for administration and was influential in the university and in learned societies. In 1933-35, as the New Zealand Commonwealth Fund fellow, he studied geophysics at the Colorado School of Mines, United States of America (M.S., 1935). He was to publish Lord Rutherford of Nelson (Auckland, 1937) and Dimensional Methods and Their Applications (London, 1953).

Promoted reader in 1950, Focken left New Zealand next year on his appointment as director of the Museum (from 1960 Institute) of Applied Science of Victoria, Melbourne. In 1953 he studied methods of museum display and administration in Britain and Northern Europe, and produced an influential report. The 'dynamic' Focken brought museum display into modern mode, secured extra staff and funds, persuaded government to complete the Swanston Street wing and established a radio-carbon-dating laboratory. His instant action in preserving H. V. McKay's historic smithy prompted a £20,000 donation from the Sunshine Foundation to erect a planetarium at the museum. During planning for the move of the National Gallery of Victoria, debates on the allocation of areas found Focken at variance with his chairman, the strong-willed F. M. Read; believing he had lost the confidence of the trustees, Focken resigned in December 1961.

In November he had accepted an invitation from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to be chief of a mission to establish the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology at Valetta. With typical energy, Focken began the first courses in temporary premises in 1962. The project was almost completed on his retirement in 1966 and became the New University of Malta (1978). Returning home in 1967, Focken lived quietly at Kew. He died on 15 August 1978 at East Hawthorn and was cremated; his wife and two of their three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. H. MacNeil (ed), The History of Wesley College 1920-1940 (Melb, 1941)
  • W. P. Morrell, The University of Otago (Dunedin, NZ, 1969)
  • W. Perry, The Science Museum of Victoria (Melb, 1972)
  • St Columb's (Hawthorn, Melbourne), Columban, Sept 1978
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 June 1935
  • official files (Museum Victoria, Melbourne)
  • student records (Queen's College Archives, University of Melbourne)
  • Focken's diary, notebooks and papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

F. J. Kendall, 'Focken, Charles Melbourne (1901–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 3 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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