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Sir George Whitecross Paton (1902–1985)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published:

George Paton, by Norman Wodetzki, 1971

George Paton, by Norman Wodetzki, 1971

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/​I/​2241

Sir George Whitecross Paton (1902-1985), legal scholar and vice-chancellor, was born on 16 August 1902 at Germantown (Grovedale), near Geelong, Victoria, eldest of five surviving children of Francis Hume Lyall Paton, a Presbyterian minister born in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), and his Germantown-born wife Clara Sophia, née Heyer.  The missionary John Gibson Paton was his grandfather; Johannes Heyer was his uncle.  George attended Scotch College, Melbourne, in 1914-20 before entering Ormond College, University of Melbourne, as a theological student.  Developing doubts about his vocation, in 1921 he transferred to the faculty of arts.  He graduated BA (1924) with first-class honours in sociology and philosophy and MA (1926).  President of the Public Questions Society and of the Christian Union, and editor of Melbourne University Magazine, Paton was popular; slight but wiry and of medium height, he won a Blue for athletics.

Victorian Rhodes scholar for 1926, Paton read law at Magdalen College, Oxford (BA Hons, 1928; BCL Hons, 1929), and developed a passion for jurisprudence.  Although called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1929, he never practised and became in 1930 an assistant-lecturer in law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  He was appointed to the chair of jurisprudence at the University of Melbourne, vacated when the dean (Sir) Kenneth Bailey moved to a new chair in public law.  Arriving back in Melbourne in April 1931, on 11 July at Elsternwick he married with Presbyterian forms Alice Watson, a Melbourne University science graduate.  Their happy marriage—her warm practicality complementing his quiet reserve—produced one son and three daughters.

Admired by his students as an outstanding teacher, Paton had, Geoffrey Sawer recalled, 'a very Australian way of talking, vigorous and colloquial, and a sort of commonsensicalness too'.  The Law Institute criticised the course, which had been restructured by Bailey, on the grounds that it was deficient in practical training for solicitors.  Paton, like Bailey, wished to encourage scholarship and refused to change it.  As chairman of the Union’s board, he led the successful public campaign in 1935 to raise funds for the new Union House proposed by Vice-Chancellor Raymond Priestley, to bring together students, staff and graduates as a single university community.  He spoke out in public, especially on international issues, and in 1938 was third Australian delegate at the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva; next year he published an excellent account of the League’s dilemmas in Australian Rhodes Review.

In 1943 Paton succeeded Bailey as dean.  His quiet, informal style was effective with colleagues, choleric judges, and even with E. L. Piesse, the formidable president (1942-43) of the Law Institute, with which a compromise on course structure was at last reached.  Paton also championed the cause of criminology.  His two major works were A Text Book of Jurisprudence (1946), which won him the Swiney prize in 1954, and Bailment in the Common Law (1952).  As chairman (1947-49) of the professorial board Paton worked with, and sometimes acted for, the vice-chancellor (Sir) John Medley; his informal approach remained generally successful, though some among the small oligarchy of professors thought him indecisive.

In July 1951 Paton took over as vice-chancellor, the first to be chosen from inside the university.  He gave up teaching with regret, and moved into the room in the Old Quadrangle, study as much as office, warmed by a coal fire and filled with cigarette smoke.  Outside commitments crowded in:  he chaired the royal commission on television in 1953-54, the fine arts committee for Melbourne’s 1956 Olympic Games, and, in 1956-57, the Commonwealth inquiry into the National Library that recommended its separation from the parliamentary library and the creation of a separate archival authority.

Paton had modestly announced in 1951 that 'he planned no specific changes at the University other than those that economic and social change made necessary'.  Change, however, was rapid, as new buildings replaced wartime huts, new disciplines were introduced, research strengths were developed and student enrolments grew rapidly.  Paton, surrounded by powerful professors extending their own fiefdoms, gained (a little unfairly) a reputation for letting things happen rather than making them happen; he advised, warned, and encouraged or discouraged the initiatives of others, while making his own views known only to council and its committees, which still directly determined staffing and finance.  He supported the creation in 1953 of the professional Union Theatre Repertory Company, and facilitated its later transfer to the city, still a department of the university, as the Melbourne Theatre Company.  Paton also promoted the establishment (1957) of International House and in 1961 argued for more scholarships for Asian students, whose enrolment he saw as an investment in fostering relationships and not as a source of income.

University finances were unpredictable from year to year and developments were funded piecemeal, including the re-establishment in 1963, after long pressure and without accurate costing, of the expensive faculty of veterinary science.  Council could not persuade the vice-chancellor or his registrar, F. H. Johnston, to produce a coherent plan for the university, and Paton’s preference for privately negotiated solutions to problems often seemed secretive.  Paton’s natural academic habitat was the small university (as the middle ground was his in argument).  Believing Melbourne’s eight thousand students in 1956 were already too many for a single community, he campaigned successfully for a second university in Victoria.  Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies announced the appointment of Sir Keith Murray’s committee on Australian universities in January 1957, the month in which, his reputation at its zenith, Paton was knighted.  As a result of the committee’s recommendation, Monash University was established in 1958.

Struck down by a serious infection, Paton had to leave to colleagues the preparation of the university’s submission to Murray.  Strong in ideals, it was weak in statistical detail; Melbourne’s tiny, outmoded central administration proved incapable of providing the data requested while the professorial board refused to place requests in any order of priority.  When Menzies accepted the committee’s recommendations for a new relationship between universities and the Commonwealth, Paton, who was chairman (1957-60) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, congratulated him.

Murray had aimed to improve Australian universities rather than expand them, but the rapidly increasing demand for university entry soon made expansion the dominant issue.  Paton, wanting to 'meet the community demand for expansion without destroying what is valuable in our community', sought a third Victorian university, dissenting when the (Sir Alan) Ramsay committee for development of tertiary education in Victoria, of which he was a member, recommended in 1963 that Melbourne and Monash should be the only degree granting institutions in the State and should each increase their student numbers to eighteen thousand by 1968.  During Paton’s absence on leave, Melbourne did prepare such a plan, Professor (Sir) David Derham arguing cogently that the university had introduced so many new disciplines that only a major expansion could carry them.  When Paton returned, the proposal lapsed; meanwhile the medical faculty adroitly arranged to double its size, further distorting the university’s development.

Crisis came in 1964-65, when budget cuts became inevitable.  Paton fell ill, and his deputy’s appeals to governments proved vain.  After critical reports from the State auditor-general and the parliamentary public accounts committee, a council committee, blaming no individual but concluding that the university’s administration had 'not moved forward in the last 25 years despite great expansion', recommended a radical restructure, including the appointment of a vice-principal.  State and Federal governments remained reluctant to aid an institution in the habit of listing needs rather than determining priorities; in 1967 even Menzies, the new chancellor, was politely rebuffed in Canberra.

Paton’s continuing sympathy with students, and public defence of them, brought him insults from some members of parliament in December 1966 after paint was thrown on President Lyndon Johnson’s car.  Though never cowed by criticism, Paton was grateful that academic colleagues and other parliamentarians defended him.  He retired on 29 February 1968, having received honorary doctorates from the universities of Sydney (1955), Queensland (1959), Western Ontario, Canada (1959), Glasgow (1963), London (1963) and Tasmania (1963).  Melbourne conferred on him an honorary LL.D in 1971.

In retirement Sir George served as secretary of the board of examiners for the Council of Legal Education for a decade, while continuing on the board of the Melbourne Theatre Company and, until 1974, as Australian secretary of the Rhodes Trust, a position that he had occupied since 1953.  He also chaired (1968) a committee on State parliamentary salaries, and served as president (1969-71) of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology.  Survived by his wife and their four children, he died on 16 June 1985 at his Toorak home and was cremated.  The University of Melbourne holds a 1968 portrait of him by Louis Kahan.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Campbell, A History of the Melbourne Law School, 1857-1973 (1977)
  • J. Poynter and C. Rasmussen, A Place Apart (1996)
  • J. Poynter, 'The Rhodes Scholarships in Australia', in A. Kenny (ed), The History of the Rhodes Trust, 1902-1991 (2001)
  • R. Selleck, The Shop: The University of Melbourne 1850-1939 (2003)
  • J. Waugh, First Principles (2007)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, September-November 1985, p 14
  • University of Melbourne archives
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Paton, Sir George Whitecross (1902–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Paton, by Norman Wodetzki, 1971

George Paton, by Norman Wodetzki, 1971

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/​I/​2241

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1902
Grovedale, Victoria, Australia


16 June, 1985 (aged 82)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.