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Sir Roy Douglas (Pansy) Wright (1907–1990)

by Peter McPhee

This article was published:

Douglas Wright, by Wes Walters, 1980

Douglas Wright, by Wes Walters, 1980

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22721323

Sir Roy Douglas Wright (1907-1990), professor of physiology and university chancellor, was born on 7 August 1907 at Central Castra, Tasmania, ninth of ten children of Tasmanian-born parents John Forsyth Wright, farmer, and his wife Emma Maria, née Lewis. After a fire destroyed the family’s farmhouse in 1915, the Wrights took their six younger children to Ulverstone, where John made a comfortable living through produce stores and by investing in property.

Roy attended Devonport High School before studying science for one year at the University of Tasmania. In 1925 he took up a scholarship at Queen’s College, University of Melbourne, to study medicine. His fellow residents began to refer to him by the antithetical nickname of ‘Pansy’, after he played the role in a revue of the unkempt university policeman ‘Pansy’ Norris. The nickname suited Wright, a short, powerful man with a gravelly voice.

After graduating first in his class (MB, BS, 1929), Wright was a resident medical officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where he developed a fascination for research. In 1932 he completed a master of surgery degree and was appointed to a lectureship in pathology at the University of Melbourne. His research won him the David Syme prize in 1937. (Sir) Howard (Baron) Florey invited Wright to work with him at the University of Oxford (1937-38); Florey’s recommendation was crucial to Wright’s appointment in 1939, aged 32, as professor of physiology at the University of Melbourne. Wright became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1940 and gained a doctorate in science in 1941.

Wright’s tenure as professor of physiology coincided with remarkable developments in medical research, particularly in his own field of endocrinology. In 1948 he played a pivotal role in encouraging the work of Dick Denton and Victor Wynn through the ionic research unit. Others in Wright’s team included Edward Trautner, Sam Rose, Ray Bradley, David Dewhurst and Ron Morris. A photometer used by Wynn became central to Trautner’s work with John Cade on lithium.

Increasingly, Wright’s key role was as a mentor and institution builder, although he remained an active researcher until his death and published about 180 scientific papers. He served as dean of the faculties of medicine (1946-47, 1951-52), veterinary science (1945-62) and science (1969). He was an executive board member (1971-90) and research consultant (1976-90) of the Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology, funds for the establishment of which he had secured in 1963. He joined the council of the University of Melbourne in 1963; following his retirement as professor of physiology in 1971, he was appointed deputy chancellor (1972-80) and then chancellor (1980-89). The university conferred on Wright an honorary doctorate of laws in 1980. He was appointed AK in 1983.

Wright combined his own extensive administrative responsibilities and productive teaching and research career with an active role outside his own university. During World War II he had spent three years in the army’s Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs) in Canberra headed by Alfred Conlon. He retained close links with Canberra as a council member (1946-76) of the Australian National University, from which he gained two further degrees (D.Sc., 1967; Hon LL.D, 1977). In Melbourne he lobbied the State government to establish the Victorian Cancer Institute and was its first executive chairman (1948-71) and later the medical director (1971-75) of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Clinic.

A controversial figure, Wright was an ambitious man, not simply in personal terms but as one of the generation who were driven by a fierce desire to reconstruct Australia after the war. His achievements were contested by colleagues in rival institutions outside academia, such as (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet, who sought to concentrate research in medical institutes. Wright’s pedagogy and vision of a medical education sharply polarised students, but were highly influential: his lectures were deliberately challenging rather than instructive; his wider aim was to broaden the medical curriculum.

Wright was an influential contributor to debates about the desirable form and function of universities. Fundamental to his vision was a wish to democratise entry to tertiary education and to broaden the basis of collegiate decision-making. In the late 1980s, however, he found himself unsettled by radical agendas for change, from the Commonwealth government, which sought greater control of university governance, and from his own vice-chancellor (and former student), David Penington, whose structural reforms Wright feared would undermine collegiality and intellectual autonomy.

For many people, Wright’s most endearing characteristic was the way he reconciled his attachment to university traditions with his active commitment to civil liberties. He famously took up the case of Sydney Sparkes Orr, professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania, who was dismissed in 1956 for having allegedly seduced a student. Ironically, Wright’s brother, Senator (Sir) Reginald Wright, was the senior counsel for the University of Tasmania in Orr’s trial. Wright spent a decade fighting what he saw to be a classic example of wrongful dismissal and an infringement of academic freedom, but was increasingly frustrated by Orr himself, whom he regarded as ‘a bit of a twit’.

Wright inspired deep affection and loyalty in most of those who knew him. A self-styled ‘boy from the bush’, he was always mistrustful of the establishment, but was adept at creating and deploying his own networks of influence. His private life, although sometimes unsettled and sad, was marked by close female relationships, with his mother and sisters, and two wives. Wright had married, with Methodist forms, Julia Violet Bell, a nurse, on 24 September 1932 at Camperdown, Victoria; they subsequently divorced. On 22 July 1964 he married Meriel Antoinette Winchester Wilmot, his secretary since 1941, in the registry office, Kensington, England.

With few intimate male friends, Wright preferred the conviviality of good company to openness. But people loved him for his excess: he was more brilliant than other academics, more ambitious and politically skilled, and more passionate. Above all, he was funnier. Many of his most remembered quips concerned reproductive organs, although he did not need to be ribald to be amusing. His intense sibling rivalry with Reg was between two similar men, both ‘rebel conservatives’ who enjoyed unsettling authority with their independent views. They only became reconciled to each other long after the Orr case. Survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his first marriage, Sir Douglas died on 28 February 1990 at Parkville, Melbourne. He is buried alongside his brother in Ulverstone cemetery, Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. C. Eddy, Orr (1961)
  • H. Dow (ed.), Memories of Melbourne University (1983)
  • T. Hewat, The Florey (1990)
  • C. Pybus, Gross Moral Turpitude (1993)
  • P. McPhee, ‘Pansy’: A Life of Roy Douglas Wright (1999).

Citation details

Peter McPhee, 'Wright, Sir Roy Douglas (Pansy) (1907–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 June 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

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