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The Australian National University

History of ANU

Students on steps near School of General Studies Library (JB Chifley Building), 1964 (Source: ANU Archives)
Vehicles on University Avenue, 1965 (Source: ANU Archives)
Proposed site plan for the ANU by Professor Brian Lewis, 1953 (Source: ANU Archives)


Visit our history for a list of significant events in the history of the ANU.

An idea is hatched

By the early 1870s Australia had three universities: the University of Sydney, founded 1850; the University of Melbourne, founded 1853; and the University of Adelaide, founded 1874. These universities were all founded under British traditions, with their primary aim being teaching. By 1900 there were calls made for the introduction of a National University of Australia that was to be primarily research focussed, which had been influenced by the American ideals, especially after the founding of the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore), the first University to be established in the US primarily for the purpose of research and postgraduate training.

The first steps in the establishment of ANU were taken in the early years of the twentieth century when the Minister for Home Affairs, King O'Malley, agreed to set land aside for a university in the new Federal Capital Territory (Canberra). The winning entry in the design competition for Canberra by Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin set this land aside under the current footprint of ANU in 1912.

David Rivett made the first detailed case for a research-based university in Canberra after he was appointed head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the forerunner to the CSIRO. He advocated a research based university, based on the model provided by Johns Hopkins, with close links to the CSIR.

By 1929, Professor T.H. Laby, Dean of Science at the University of Melbourne was instrumental in formalising the first glimpse of tertiary education in Canberra with the establishment of the Canberra University College (CUC) affiliated with the University of Melbourne and chaired by Sir Robert Garran. The CUC was established to provide undergraduate university education in Canberra, it took its first students in 1930. The CUC was integral in continuing to educate the influx of public servants to Canberra and for most of its history, students were part-time, sitting for University of Melbourne examinations and eventually graduation with a University of Melbourne qualification.

Inevitable delays

The outbreak of World War II delayed plans for the founding of a National university and it was not until the establishment of the Department for Post-War Reconstruction in 1942, with Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley as the Minister and Herbert Cole (Nugget) Coombs as the Director-General that these plans were reinstated. In 1943 an inter-departmental committee was set-up comprising of representatives from departments with an interest in educational matters to explore the idea of a National university. In October of 1944, the first outline of a national university was produced. This report stated the need for a national centre of higher learning that might cover such areas as government, Pacific affairs, international relations, Australian history and literature.

This report may have remained stagnant if not for Nobel laureate Sir Howard Florey, who was invited by Prime Minster John Curtin to undertake a review of medical research facilities in Australia. Florey concluded that medical research in Australia was grossly under resourced and this led to a proposal for a national medical research institute, being presented to Curtin in November, 1944. This proposal and the report of the Coombs Committee were the impetus for a new committee being established in April of 1945 under the Chair of Richard Charles Mills, which presented a proposal that a national university be set up, primarily focussing on postgraduate studies and comprising institutes to study social medicine and social sciences. Curtin's Cabinet accepted these proposals, with the only change being the addition of the word 'Australian' before 'national university'.

Coombs, who was an active member of the Mills Committee, presented a proposal to cabinet that the university have five research institutes; Medical Research, Social Sciences, Pacific Affairs, Town and Regional Planning and Atomic Physics. By the end of 1945 the first three institutes were firmly accepted, Town and Regional Planning had been dropped and the Atomic Physics was only tentatively kept.

Australia's National University is (finally) born

On the 1st August 1946, under the leadership of Prime Minister Chifley, the Australian Parliament passed the Australian National University Act 1946. This Act states that the functions of the university are:

  1. To encourage, and provide facilities for, post-graduate research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia;
  2. To provide facilities for university education for persons who elect to avail themselves of those facilities and are eligible so to do;
  3. Subject to the Statutes, to award and confer degrees and diplomas.

The Act also outlines the organisation of ANU into two distinct groups: the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) and the Faculties. The IAS was to include institutes of medical science (later the John Curtin School of Medical Research), physical sciences, social sciences, Pacific studies and other fields of learning as the University Council determines. The establishment of the 'Faculties' did not take place until 1960 when the CUC (later the School of General Studies) was amalgamated with the IAS.

Until the University Council was established in an interim council was established that included all the members of the Mills Committee. Roy Douglas Wright was Honorary Secretary of the Interim Council in 1947 and travelled abroad to sound out prospective directors for the various research schools to act as an Academic Advisory Committee. The members of the first Academic Advisory Committee were Sir Howard Walter Florey (Medical Research), Sir Marcus Laurence Oliphant (Physical Sciences), Sir Raymond William Firth (Pacific Studies) and Sir William Keith Hancock (Social Studies).

These efforts led to the establishment of the first four research schools at ANU: Research School of Physical Sciences (1947) (now the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering), the John Curtin School of Medical Research (1948); the Research School of Pacific Studies (1948) (now the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies) and the Research School of Social Sciences (1948). Expansion of the IAS continued with the establishment of the Research School of Biological Sciences (1967); the Research School of Chemistry (1968); the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (1973), (later combining with the School of Resources, Environment and Society (SRES) to form the Fenner School of Environment and Society), the Research School of Earth Sciences (1973); the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (1998), the School of Mathematical Sciences (1986-9) (now the Mathematical Sciences Institute), the Research School of Information Sciences and Engineering (1994); and the Research School of Humanities (2007).

Updated:  26 May 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Facilities & Services Division/Page Contact:  Systems & Information Technology