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Sir Robert Strachan Wallace (1882–1961)

by Ursula Bygott

This article was published:

Robert Strachan Wallace (1882-1961), by Falk Studios, c1933

Robert Strachan Wallace (1882-1961), by Falk Studios, c1933

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23594730

Sir Robert Strachan Wallace (1882-1961), university vice-chancellor, was born on 1 August 1882 at Old Deer, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of John Wallace, master blacksmith, and his wife Christina, née Hay. Robert was educated locally at Gordon's College and on a scholarship at the University of Aberdeen (M.A., 1904), gaining first-class honours in English language and literature. Having taught at his old school, he proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., 1907); there he was awarded the Holford exhibition in English and took first-class honours in English literature. Wallace returned as assistant-professor to Aberdeen where he married Mary Murray McAdam on 28 July 1909 with Congregational forms.

Appointed to the chair of English language and literature at the University of Melbourne in 1912, Wallace was a dedicated teacher and scholar. He also proved an able administrator as dean of the faculty of arts (1914-17), vice-president (1917, 1922-24) and president (1925-27) of the professorial board, and chairman of the extension board. While in Melbourne he was general editor of the Australasian Shakespeare series, and edited Twelfth Night (1916) and Holinshed's Chronicles (1917, 1923). He also published An Historical English Grammar (1921) and, with (Sir) Archibald Strong, English Prose and Verse (1923).

On 23 February 1917 Wallace had enlisted as a gunner in the Field Artillery, Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned in November, he was posted next year to the A.I.F. Education Service, Cambridge, England, and appointed director of the Australian Corps Central School at Rue, France. He was responsible to Bishop George Long for organizing the corps school as a training centre for matriculation, accountancy and civil service examinations. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 3 November 1919.

In 1927, on the unanimous decision of the senate of the University of Sydney, Wallace was appointed vice-chancellor. On his arrival with his family in January 1928, he was unimpressed with the dilapidated buildings, and with the unkempt grounds whose beauty he set about restoring, assisted later by Professor Gowrie Waterhouse and relief workers during the Depression.

Confronted with the severe problems brought about by a decrease in the government grant, Wallace had to cope with salary reductions, lack of essential equipment and financial stringency in all aspects of university life. That the university weathered the storm while developing some new courses and maintaining academic standards was largely due to his careful administration and ability to obtain co-operation and loyalty from a staff under considerable pressure. New chairs were established, including the Bosch chairs in medicine, surgery and bacteriology. A degree course in divinity and several new diploma courses were also introduced.

Wallace benefited from his contacts within the government through his involvement as the Commonwealth's chief censor for cinematographic films (1922-27) and as a member (1932-35) of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. A major achievement was the decision of the State government in 1937 to increase the university's statutory endowment to a permanent £100,000. Wallace, however, feared that too much government assistance might endanger the university's autonomy and aimed to find further income from independent sources.

Among the major building projects undertaken in his term of office were a new medical school, biology laboratories, the departments of biochemistry and geography, and a lecture theatre which bears his name. Sancta Sophia College was incorporated into the university, the veterinary farm at Badgerys Creek was purchased with the assistance of a grant from the (John) McGarvie Smith Institute (1936) and the plant breeding station at Curlewis was established (1944). Wallace was also a founder of the New England University College at Armidale.

The careful and wise handling of students was a strong point of his vice-chancellorship. Students respected Wallace's fairness and understanding which he demonstrated especially in regard to the Commemoration Day celebrations and in the creation of the students' representative council. He tried to satisfy the graduates (who had long sought representation on the senate) by establishing the standing committee of convocation.

Generally on good terms with his staff and almost always available, Wallace was thought by some critics to be unable to take a stand on certain issues because of influences brought to bear on him. His close friends included professors Archibald Charteris (his legal adviser) and Leslie Wilkinson (whose work he admired), and Eric (Lord) Ashby. A keen supporter of freedom of speech for academics, Wallace gave prudent support to the controversial Professor John Anderson.

In World War II Wallace faced the task of guiding the university through the attendant problems of manpower restrictions, the urgency of wartime research and the lack of essential equipment. He had known grief at the death of his eldest child and grieved anew when the university's casualty list lengthened. Responsible for successfully implementing the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme for ex-service men and women, he saw a dramatic expansion in the number of students and staff. Nevertheless, his last years were ones of increasing frustration. Unable and unwilling to adjust to large-scale administration, he increasingly passed to younger men the committee-work which he hated. Knighted in 1941, Wallace was glad to retire in 1947 from what had been a challenging but arduous and, at times, soul-destroying decade.

Tall and spare, with an Aberdonian accent, a soft and hearty chuckle and a dry sense of humour, Wallace had a vigorous, energetic temperament much influenced by his religious upbringing. He was a firm man, of great integrity, but his moralistic sense of justice was at times marred by hastiness of judgement. He was devoted to his family and kept his private sphere separate from his university life. Mary presided over a happy home. Among his sporting interests were cricket and golf. Wallace retired to Canberra where he died on 5 September 1961. Survived by his wife and two sons, he was buried with Presbyterian forms in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • H. Dow (ed), Memories of Melbourne University (Melb, 1983)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Dec 1932
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, June 1952, Oct 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June, 8 July 1927, 5 Apr, 30 Nov 1928, 24 May 1932, 1 Jan 1941, 7 Sept 1961
  • 'Obituary: Sir Robert Wallace', Times (London), 7 Sept 1961, p 17
  • University of Sydney Archives.

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Citation details

Ursula Bygott, 'Wallace, Sir Robert Strachan (1882–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Strachan Wallace (1882-1961), by Falk Studios, c1933

Robert Strachan Wallace (1882-1961), by Falk Studios, c1933

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23594730

Life Summary [details]


1 August, 1882
Old Deer, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


5 September, 1961 (aged 79)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.