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Sydney Sparkes Orr (1914–1966)

by W. D. Joske

This article was published:

Sydney Sparkes Orr (1914-1966), philosopher, claimed to have been born on 6 December 1914 at Belfast, Ireland, son of Tedford Orr, blacksmith, and his wife Elizabeth. However, in giving evidence before the Supreme Court of Tasmania in October 1956, he said: 'My birth is a mystery. It has been a source of great distress to me all my life. I do not know whether my purported parents are my real parents, whether I am adopted or illegitimate'.

Educated at Bedford College and Queen's University of Belfast, Sydney graduated with first-class honours in philosophy (B.A., 1939; M.A., 1941). At Cooke Centenary Church on 22 September 1941 he married Sarah Davidson with Presbyterian forms. While employed at Queen's as an assistant-lecturer (1939-44) in philosophy, he began in 1942 to study for his doctorate on 'the relationship between virtue and knowledge in Plato', but was never awarded the degree. He held a temporary assistant-lectureship (from 1944) in the department of logic and metaphysics, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

In 1946 Orr was appointed acting-lecturer in the department of philosophy, University of Melbourne; in the following year he obtained a permanent lectureship. While awaiting his wife's arrival, he formed an intimate relationship with a young woman who bore him a child. She later lived with the Orrs in a ménage à trois. The affair ended while Orr was still in Melbourne. In 1952 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania. The choice was surprising, as Orr had published little, and was not as highly regarded as some other applicants for the chair, but he had the support of the chancellor Sir John Morris, who believed that he would contribute to adult education in the community and who wanted a philosopher untainted by logical positivism.

During his tenure of the chair Orr played a significant role in seeking reform of an outdated university administrative structure. The university council was seen by many staff members to be both interfering and obstructionist, involving itself in matters that were properly the concern of academics and not of a body of lay persons. In 1953-54 staff and students campaigned against the old order. An open letter to the premier, written by Orr and signed by thirty-five fellow academics, was published in the Mercury on 29 October 1954. It called for an inquiry into 'the present administration of the University of Tasmania' and led (Sir) Robert Cosgrove reluctantly to agree to the appointment of a royal commission.

Headed by Justice James Walker of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, the commission opened on 22 February 1955 and delivered its report on 26 May. The report was highly critical of Morris and of the university council, which it recommended be replaced. The council did not feel obliged to implement all the commission's recommendations. A new University Act was passed by parliament in November 1955 and proclaimed on 15 December.

Next day the council authorized the vice-chancellor to establish a committee to consider complaints against Orr made by two members of staff—W. A. Townsley, an historian, and Dr K. Milanov, a member of Orr's department—and by a mature-age student of philosophy, Edwin Tanner. Following a special council meeting on 2 March 1956, which heard an allegation by Reginald Kemp, a local timber merchant, that Orr had seduced his daughter Suzanne (an undergraduate student of philosophy), a second committee was established. Both committees found against Orr. The university refused to accept his resignation, and he was summarily dismissed on 16 March 1956.

Orr's significance for historians derives from the circumstances of his expulsion, the subsequent campaign for his reinstatement, and the consequent prolonged debate concerning both the propriety of the university's proceedings and the proper relationship between a university and its academic staff. Orr sued the university alleging wrongful dismissal. The case was heard in the Supreme Court in October and November 1956. The court found that the complaints of Townsley, Milanov and Tanner were not of sufficient gravity to justify Orr's removal, but it did accept the veracity of Miss Kemp's evidence, and found that the university was justified in summarily dismissing him. In May 1957 the High Court of Australia rejected Orr's appeal and supported the findings of the Supreme Court.

That month Orr enlisted the help of Professor R. D. Wright of the University of Melbourne as his academic 'next friend'. Wright devoted energy, time and money to assist Orr until the year of the latter's death. In June 1958 the Orr case gained considerable credence when the Kirk Session of Scot's Church, Hobart, after receiving Orr's application for readmission to the Church, found that he had been convicted on insufficient evidence and that a gross miscarriage of justice had occurred. The session's findings took account of new evidence produced by Orr, and were later endorsed by other church authorities, most notably the Catholic archbishop (Sir) Guilford Young and the Anglican bishop Geoffrey Cranswick.

Support for Orr was not confined to Tasmania. The staff associations of most Australian universities expressed their concern, that of Newcastle University College calling in July 1958 for a 'ban on applications for positions on the Staff of the University of Tasmania'. In August that year the Australasian Association of Philosophy imposed a ban on the filling of the chair of philosophy at the University of Tasmania. There was consistent agitation for reopening the case, either by the court or by a special inquiry, so that the new evidence could be examined. In Hobart the community was divided. Orr's supporters and opponents campaigned vigorously. The strength of feeling was demonstrated when a shot was fired through the window of his home on 23 December 1959. The owner of the rifle from which the bullet was fired was tried early in 1960, but the magistrate dismissed the case. There is still argument as to whether the shooting was an attempted assassination or a ploy to gain sympathy for the former professor.

Orr was widely regarded as a martyr, an antipodean Dreyfus, the victim of a conspiracy by members of a conservative establishment determined to rid the university of a difficult troublemaker by punishing him for the part he had played in bringing about the royal commission and the reform of the university and its council. This view was put most strongly by W. H. C. Eddy, a senior tutor in external studies at the University of Sydney, in his voluminous and passionate book, Orr (Brisbane, 1961).

Not all of Orr's supporters saw him as an innocent figure: some simply thought that the charges against him were not proven; others believed that the procedures of the university committees were improper and that due process had not been observed. Professor E. Morris Miller was not alone in arguing that an affair with a student was a private matter and no proper ground for disciplinary action—even though Orr himself consistently denied having had sexual intercourse with Suzanne Kemp. The Federal Council of University Staff Associations was as concerned with seeing that proper tenure conditions and disciplinary procedures were accepted by the university as with the case itself.

In spite of approaches made on his behalf, Orr was unable to obtain any other academic appointment, and was reduced to dependence on the charity of his sympathisers. Except for short periods when he was employed in unskilled tasks, he devoted the remainder of his life to seeking compensation from the university and reinstatement as its professor of philosophy. In December 1963 the university offered him a cash settlement. The chancellor Sir Henry Baker and four other council-members resigned in protest. Orr rejected the offer. In May 1966, when his health was failing, he accepted a similar settlement which included compensation of $32,000.

Survived by his wife and their daughter and two sons, Orr died of multiple pulmonary emboli on 15 July 1966 in Royal Hobart Hospital and was cremated. A public appeal was launched to raise funds for his family.

In recent years the Orr case has been re-evaluated, in particular by Cassandra Pybus in Gross Moral Turpitude (Melbourne, 1993). Pybus argued that there was no conspiracy, that Orr was guilty, that the shortcomings in the procedures of the University were excusable, and that the seduction of a student by a professor is a serious abuse of a special relationship. She pointed out that—as shown by (Sir) John Kerr and J. H. Wootten in 1958—the new evidence, which long provided the main reason for seeking a rehearing of the case, could only be accepted by denying facts that were conceded by Orr at his trials.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Tasmania, The Dismissal of S. S. Orr by the University of Tasmania (Hob, 1958)
  • W. H. C. Eddy, Orr (Brisb, 1961)
  • R. Davis, Open to Talent (Hob, 1990)
  • C. Pybus, Gross Moral Turpitude (Melb, 1993)
  • J. B. Polya and R. J. Solomon, Dreyfus in Australia (Syd, 1996)
  • Royal Commission on the University of Tasmania, Report, Parliamentary Papers, no 18 (House of Assembly, Tasmania), 1955
  • Free Spirit, 4, Aug 1958
  • Mercury (Hobart), 29 Oct 1954, 16, 17 Dec 1963, 7, 9, 27 May, 16 June, 16, 19 July, 6 Aug, 22 Sept 1966
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 17 Dec 1963, 9 Nov 1966
  • papers relating to Orr case (University of Tasmania Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. D. Joske, 'Orr, Sydney Sparkes (1914–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 December, 1914
Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


15 July, 1966 (aged 51)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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