With the death of Herbert Cole ('Nugget') Coombs on 29 October 1997 Australia lost its greatest public servant, a man who spent his life as an employee of the Commonwealth initiating major civilizing activities in economic and cultural fields, and then and after his retirement became a great champion of the rights of Aboriginal Australians. More than any other individual, he was responsible for the formation of the Australian National University, he was a most influential Governor of the Reserve Bank, he was the foundation chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and of the Australian Council for the Arts and its successor, the Australia Council. From the time of his appointment as Chairman of the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in 1968 he became deeply interested in the welfare of Aborigines, and this became his major activity during the last thirty years of his life.
The account which follows is not a biography, but a biographical memoir of the Australian Academy of Science. In consequence, the discussion of his activities as a public servant and as an economist are only briefly mentioned, attention being concentrated on Coombs' contributions to science and environmental conservation, and to a lesser extent his influence in the promotion of the arts and the welfare of Australian Aborigines.
Coombs was born in Kalamunda, Western Australia, on 24 February 1906, the son of a country stationmaster and a well-read mother. After five years at Perth Modern School, he worked as a pupil-teacher for a year before spending two years at the Teachers' College. He then spent two years teaching at country schools, during which he studied for an Arts degree in the University of Western Australia, at the time the only university in Australia that did not charge fees. Transferring to a metropolitan school for the final two years, he graduated BA with first-class honours in economics and won a Hackett Studentship for overseas study. This was deferred for a year, at the end of which, in 1931, he graduated MA and married a fellow teacher, Mary Alice ('Lallie') Ross. He then proceeded to the London School of Economics, the staff of which then included Laski, Robbins and von Hayek. In 1933 he was awarded a PhD for a thesis on central banking. He was caught up in the ferment of the Keynesian revolution and as he later wrote: 'The publication in 1936 of John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was for me and many of my generation the most seminal intellectual event of our time.' In 1934 he returned to a teaching position in Perth and combined this with part-time lecturing in economics at the University.
While in London, Coombs had met Leslie Melville, Economist for the Commonwealth Bank, with whom he discussed opportunities for obtaining work as an economist. In 1935 he resigned from the Education Department of Western Australia and moved to Sydney as assistant economist to Melville. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 he was transferred to Canberra as an economist in Treasury. In 1942 he was appointed to the Commonwealth Bank Board and later that year Prime Minister Curtin appointed him Director of Rationing. In 1943 he was appointed Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction. In this position he was responsible for the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (CRTS), and he took a particular interest in establishingfacilities for the rehabilitation of disabled service men and women. He played a major role in planning the 1945 legislation that established the Commonwealth Bank as a competitor with the trading banks and strengthened the authority of the central bank (the Reserve Bank). He was also an important figure in the international discussions that began in 1943 and culminated with Australia's signature of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in November 1947. Throughout the negotiations he emphasised the importance of acceptance by the participating countries of a domestic policy aimed at full employment and rising living standards (Rowse, 1997).
While Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, Coombs was deeply involved in the establishment of what became the Australian National University. The creation of this research university, with two of its initial four Research Schools being in the natural sciences and the subsequent expansion of Research Schools in science and mathematics to eight, was his principal contribution to science and an important component of the decision of the Australian Academy of Science to elect him as a Fellow by special election in 1969. Until 1944 education at all levels had been a jealously guarded State responsibility, but with the establishment of the Commonwealth Office of Education in that year, a move in which Coombs was deeply involved, the subsequent creation of the Universities Commission, and Commonwealth acceptance of financial responsibilities for CRTS trainees, the pattern of support for tertiary education in Australia was changed forever. During this period Coombs also initiated the long-term programme of biological and agricultural research that was needed for the development of northern Australia.
In 1948 the government became concerned about research on matters of military security being investigated by scientists employed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). A move to convert CSIR into a government department had substantial support in Cabinet, not least from John Dedman. At Prime Minister Chifley's request, Coombs and W.E. Dunk (Chairman of the Public Service Board) reviewed the situation, and recommended that a separate Defence Science Organization should be established, and that CSIR should be expanded as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), free of any commitment to 'secret' research. Many years later, when in 1975 Coombs was Chairman of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, he found that 'On the whole in retrospect the 1948 report, despite its compromises, stood up fairly well. Certainly the performance of CSIRO over the intervening years suggests that the rearguard action that we had fought to preserve appropriate conditions for scientific work had been reasonably effective.' (Coombs, 1981).
As Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, Coombs maintained close contacts with Ian Clunies Ross, soon to become the first Chairman of CSIRO, advising him on means of stimulating the application of relevant research at the farm level. He had a continuing interest in fostering innovation in secondary industry and later was active in the Science and Industry Forum of the Australian Academy of Science. He was also concerned with environmental problems, and was President of the Australian Conservation Foundation from 1977 to 1979. In 1990 he published a book, The Return of Scarcity: Strategies for an Economic Future, dealing with some of the conflicts between ecology and the economy.
In 1949 Coombs was appointed Governor of the Commonwealth Bank and in 1951 Chairman of its Board. When central banking legislation was changed in 1960 he was appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia and Chairman of the Board, posts that he held until 1968. As he describes in Other People's Money, he used this position in a most innovative way, setting up a Banking Administrative Staff College and establishing regular meetings with the managers of commercial banks. Later he organized meetings of central bankers of various countries, especially those of South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and was involved in the planning of the banking system of Papua New Guinea in anticipation of its independence. On the scientific side, he showed a great interest in the part played by the Rural Credits Development Fund in stimulating and assisting research projects and post-graduate education in the universities. The Rural Credits Development Fund also sponsored several academic positions in Australian universities, primarily to help apply agricultural and biological research to operations at the farm level.
Coombs had always been interested in the arts, and while he was Governor of the Commonwealth Bank he was instrumental in setting up the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, of which he was Chairman from 1954 to 1967. He was a member of the Council of the Australian Ballet School from 1958 and a director of the Australian Ballet Foundation from 1962 to 1967.
Late in 1967, at the suggestion of Prime Minister Holt, Coombs retired from his position as Governor of the Reserve Bank and assumed two other onerous and important tasks, chairmanship of two new bodies, the Council for the Arts and the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. He held these posts until 1976. After his appointment as a Visiting Fellow in CRES in 1976 he devoted most of his energies to promoting the recognition of Aboriginal Australians. As he got older, Coombs escaped from the cold Canberra winter to the North Australia Research Unit, which on his initiative had been set up in Darwin as an outpost of the Australian National University in 1973.
Perhaps Coombs' major contribution to science and culture was his role in the establishment and development of the Australian National University, a topic recently discussed in detail by Foster and Varghese (1996), from whose book the following account, which is focused on the two science Schools, in medical research and physical sciences, is largely derived. Because of his background, he played an even more important role in setting up the Research Schools of Pacific Studies and Social Sciences.
The idea of a national university for Australia goes back to the 1870s, and in 1913 Walter Burley Griffin designated a site for a university for 'teaching and research' in Canberra near the foot of Black Mountain, on much the same site that it now occupies. His design for the university, as for so much of Griffin's Canberra, was a somewhat complex arrangement of concentric circles, symbolizing the extension of knowledge from a theoretical core outwards to the more applied aspects of each field.
In 1927 T.H. Laby, professor of natural philosophy at the University of Melbourne and a distinguished physicist, told a government commission that Canberra should have a national university devoted to teaching and research, something that would be for Australia what Oxford and Cambridge were for Britain. Between the two World Wars the idea of a university for Canberra was kept alive by the University Association of Canberra, of which Sir Robert Garran, a prime mover in the constitutional debates that preceded federation and the first Solicitor-General, was a prominent member. In 1929 the Association persuaded the government to establish Canberra University College, affiliated with the University of Melbourne, as a place to provide tertiary education for Commonwealth public servants and their children. The Association also tried to interest politicians in the establishment of an independent university in Canberra, but this idea did not blossom until John Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941. In contrast to his predecessor, Robert Menzies, Curtin's vision extended beyond the immediate wartime needs; he wished to plan for a new social order that would ensure that every Australian would enjoy peace, security and employment. It was fortunate that at that period the Commonwealth government was supported by an outstanding group of public servants who shared this vision, prominent among them Coombs, then Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction.
The first moves towards advances in education through Commonwealth initiatives came not from the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, but from the Department of War Organization of Industry, the deputy head of which, Ronald Walker (another economist), persuaded his Minister, John Dedman, to set up an interdepartmental committee to examine possible Commonwealth initiatives in education. The committee included Coombs, Sir David Rivett, the Chairman of CSIR, and R.C. Mills, professor of economics in the University of Sydney. The committee met several times in late 1943 and throughout 1944, and was assisted in its deliberations by C.S. Daley, representing the Department of the Interior which was at that time responsible for the government of the Australian Capital Territory. It was Daley who put the notion of a national university on the agenda. The committee's final report, handed to Minister Dedman in October 1944, accepted Coombs' suggestion for a Commonwealth Office of Education, which was set up under R.C. Mills early in 1945. It also stated in strong terms that there was a need for a national centre for higher learning, spelling out government, Pacific affairs, international relations and Australian history and literature as areas to be included. Dedman brought the report to Cabinet early in 1945 and it was referred to a subcommittee of ministers, which in turn referred it to another interdepartmental committee, with Mills as chairman, Coombs, Daley, George Knowles from the Attorney-General's Department, H.J. Goodes from Treasury and Garran present by invitation.
In 1943 Sir Howard Florey, an Australian expatriate who was professor of pathology at the University of Oxford, had converted penicillin from a laboratory curiosity into a wonder drug, especially for the types of infections common in battle casualties, and by 1944 it was in use in the Allied armed services operating in Europe. Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Armed Forces, was anxious to see it made available for the Australian forces. Stimulated by Alfred Conlon and R. Douglas Wright of the Army Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, he persuaded Prime Minister Curtin to invite Florey to visit Australia to advise on the production of penicillin and its use in the army and among civilians. Florey arrived in August 1944 and spent some months visiting all the mainland capitals, several country regions and all the major centres of medical research. From his survey he soon concluded that medical research in Australia was in a parlous state, and said so in public lectures that were widely reported. In response to an invitation from Curtin, Florey developed the idea of a national medical research institute, like the National Institute of Medical Research in London, suggesting that it should be located in Sydney since Melbourne already had a first-class medical research institute (the only one in Australia, in Florey's view), the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.
Another factor, critical to the ultimate structure of the Australian National University, entered the scene. The Army Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs was a small think-tank headed by Colonel Alfred Conlon, who had direct access to the Commander-in-Chief. Conlon was a charming and charismatic man, without formal medical or military qualifications, who worked closely with R.D. ('Pansy') Wright, professor of physiology in the University of Melbourne and an honorary colonel in the Directorate. As Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, Coombs made contact with the Army Directorate and found their company and approach congenial. As well as Conlon and Wright, the Directorate included Julius Stone, professor of international law and jurisprudence in the University of Sydney, the poet James McAuley, the anthropologist Bill Stanner and the lawyer John Kerr. Wright, who had worked with Florey in Oxford in 1937-38, held strongly the opinion that Australia had to improve its facilities for medical research so as to prevent so many of its promising research workers making their careers abroad. Conlon, who graduated in medicine after the war, supported him in this view; they were pursuing the idea of setting up a national institute of medical research, located in Sydney, and welcomed Florey's support for this concept.
Because of the illness from which Curtin was eventually to die, Florey was unable to meet him, and the idea of a national institute of medical research was conveyed to Curtin by Blamey, who was himself deeply interested in the promotion of scientific research in Australia (Hetherington, 1954). The idea was referred to the Minister for Health, who set up an expert committee consisting of Sir David Rivett, head of CSIR, J.H.L. Cumpston, the Director-General of Health, and H.J. Goodes of Treasury. The two technically qualified members of the expert committee, Rivett and Cumpston, were unsympathetic to the idea of setting up a new institute, and Cumpston was strongly opposed to any alteration to the existing system for the control of funding for medical research, namely through the National Health and Medical Research Council. However, their opinions were to be over-ruled by the intrigues of the Army Directorate of Research.
Conlon and Wright had been talking over Florey's ideas between themselves and with Coombs, when it occurred to Coombs that the medical research institute might form a part of the national university then being considered by the interdepartmental committee chaired by Mills, of which he was a member. He took the new idea to the first meeting of the Mills Committee in April 1945, which initially toyed with the idea of an institute of 'social medicine', which would appeal to economists and politicians but had little in common with the sort of medical research of which Florey was thinking. After several more meetings the Mills Committee came back to the ministerial subcommittee with a formal proposal that the government should establish a national university concerned mainly with postgraduate studies and research, with institutes of social sciences and social medicine. The committee had suggested that the new university should be called the University of Canberra, but Cabinet, while accepting the committee's other recommendations, proposed the name 'Australian National University'. Initially this proposal provoked much hostility, but despite representations from the committee of vice-chancellors and all the committees set up to advise on the development of the university, Cabinet insisted on their name, realising that if the university was to survive it had to proclaim its national purpose and demonstrate that it was not duplicating the work of the state universities.
Coombs now took a lead in defining the essential features of the new university. Realising that Cabinet would soon be facing a host of other pressing post-war objectives, he was anxious to get it on the statute books. Using draft legislation that had been prepared for the Canberra University College some months earlier, a detailed proposal was ready for Cabinet by the end of 1945. The core of this proposal was the setting up of the Research Schools. Coombs listed five of these, which after further discussion became social sciences, Pacific affairs, medical research, town and regional planning, and atomic (later nuclear) physics. In Cabinet, 'town and regional planning' was subsumed within social sciences, and there was some doubt about physics, but the other three Schools won acceptance. Panels of five or six experts were then set up by the Mills Committee to comment on such matters as the fields of research within each School, relations between Schools, ways of organizing research, staff numbers and salaries, financial and accommodation needs, and relations with other Australian universities.
Much remained to be done before the final proposals could be put to Cabinet and Parliament. In April 1946 Coombs visited London, Washington and Tokyo with the Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Conlon and Wright talked with Coombs before he left, urging him to spare no effort to persuade Florey to take on leadership of the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Coombs had also to see whether it would be possible to persuade distinguished Australian expatriates to come back to Australia to head up the other Research Schools, and met and talked with the historian W.K. Hancock, the political scientist K.C. Wheare, the physicists H.S.W. Massey and M.L.E. Oliphant, and the economist R.L. Hall. Chifley met Oliphant, with whom he was greatly impressed. Although somewhat startled by the capital cost of Oliphant's concept of a Research School focused on nuclear physics (over four times the figure originally suggested to Cabinet), he told Coombs, 'If you can persuade Oliphant to head the school we will do whatever is necessary'. Coombs came back highly optimistic, telling the Mills Committee that there were good prospects of enticing Florey and several others of the expatriates whom he had met back to Australia.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the Australian National University Act was introduced in Parliament and gained assent in August 1946, the research schools being entitled Pacific Studies, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences and The John Curtin School of Medical Research. The functions of the University were defined in the Act as:
Until the Council could be constituted, the University was to be governed by an Interim Council, consisting of members appointed by the Governor-General.
The Interim Council, which included all the members of the Mills Committee and, through Coombs' influence, R.D. Wright, met for the first time in September 1946, and elected Mills as chairman. It decided to invite Florey, Oliphant and Hancock to advise them on the development of the research schools of medical science, physics and social sciences respectively. Early in 1947 they approached R.L. Firth, a New Zealander who was professor of anthropology at the University of London, to advise them on the Pacific Studies school. All were expatriates who had grown up in Australia (or New Zealand), who had established international reputations in their respective fields and who had expressed an interest in the new research university.
Early in 1947 Wright, who by this time had become Honorary Secretary of the Interim Council, travelled to England to sound out the prospective directors, whom he found had many concerns. After a two-day meeting in London at the end of March, attended by Coombs, Wright and all four prospective directors, only Oliphant was unequivocal in his commitment to come. Wright then produced a strategy to keep the prospective directors interested and informed, but not to press them too hard until progress had been made on the University's buildings and academic structure. He suggested that they should be formally constituted in England as an academic advisory committee, to be serviced by an administrative officer, to advise the Interim Council regarding statutes, budgets, building design, acquisition of books and equipment and the like. Council would act on the recommendation of the Advisory Committee in making appointments, who could work in accommodation in various parts of the world until buildings were available in Canberra.
The Academic Advisory Committee met monthly after its first meeting in Oxford in August 1947, and thereafter every two or three months, usually in Hancock's rooms at All Souls College or in Florey's office at the Dunn School. For a time there was some concern in Australia as to whether the new Australian National University would be run from Oxford or Canberra. There was a great deal of discussion in both places about the kind of person who should be sought as Vice-Chancellor. Coombs was pressed to take the job, but he was too committed to the cause of post-war planning. Eventually, two names surfaced: Sir Douglas Copland, a 53-year-old former professor of economics who was then Australia's Minister to China, and Leslie Melville, who had since 1931 been economic adviser to the Commonwealth Bank. The Advisory Committee favoured Melville but the Council chose Copland, who served as Vice-Chancellor from 1 May 1948 to 30 April 1953; in November 1953 he was succeeded by Melville.
Following their meeting in 1946, Coombs advised Chifley that Oliphant would come to Canberra only if he could do work of the same quality and standing as he was then doing in Birmingham. This would mean a capital cost of some £500,000 over five years, much more than Chifley had anticipated, but Coombs thought that if Oliphant's needs could be met there was a good chance of attracting Florey and Hancock (Adviser to the Research School of Social Sciences) as well.
The Academic Advisers met in Canberra in Easter 1948. Oliphant, who alone of the group had made up his mind to come to Canberra, outlined his plans for the Research School of Physical Sciences. In contrast to Florey, who proposed that the medical research school should cover a wide range of topics, Oliphant saw himself as the director of a school that would focus on his interests, namely research in fundamental nuclear physics and the chemistry of radioactive substances. At the meeting in Canberra he added a chair in theoretical physics, and before Oliphant took up duties as Director in 1950 the School grew by the addition of Richard Woolley, the Commonwealth Astronomer, and the Mount Stromlo Observatory as a Department of Astronomy.
Florey liked the idea that his 'national institute of medical research' would become part of a research university, but realised that this raised problems about the role of the director, whom he now saw as a chairman of professors, who would try to achieve some uniformity of aim and some common standards of performance. He would provide the oil to lubricate the machine, he would watch carefully to ensure that no department would build itself into 'a little independent kingdom', he would encourage the departments to work together. Clearly, the director's position would be 'one of delicacy'.
After the Easter conference Florey met for two days with sixteen senior medical scientists from all over Australia, to try to dispel what he saw as the 'fairly widespread and somewhat justified' distrust of the idea of a research-only Australian National University. In this he had some success, his 1945 proposal for additional funding for research outside the new institute being appreciated. Florey's plan for a diversified research school, covering a wide range of disciplines, was well received.
Recruitment of staff commenced in 1948, and by 1950 the University had eleven professors, five readers and ten junior academic staff on its books.
Coombs was a member of the Interim Council, and from the establishment of the Council in 1951 he was successively Deputy Chairman from 1951 to 1959, then Pro-Chancellor, a position created especially for him, and, after the death of the third Chancellor, Florey, in 1968, Chancellor. The first three Chancellors, Lord Bruce, Sir John Cockcroft and Lord Florey, were based in England. Although they were able to represent the University at ceremonial functions in Britain, help with senior appointments and occasionally visit Canberra, they were only rarely able to perform the most important of the non-ceremonial duties, namely presiding over meetings of the Council. This task fell to Coombs, and kept him continually involved with University affairs. His appointment as Chancellor in 1968 coincided with his impending retirement from the Reserve Bank, and he was able to give more time to the task, which he relinquished when he retired from the public service in 1976. After fifteen years of silence on University matters, however, Coombs spoke with vehemence and conviction at a rally in December 1991 to 'save the JCSMR', which, following a report by the Stephen Committee of Review, was threatened by a take-over by the National Health and Medical Research Council, a move that was seen as a threat to the continued existence of the University itself.
Among the initiatives in the ANU that can be directly ascribed to Coombs are the New Guinea Research Unit, established in 1957 and handed over to the autonomous Papua New Guinea Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research when the Territory won independence in 1975, the Creative Arts Fellowship Scheme, set up in 1964, and the North Australia Research Unit (NARU), set up as an outreach of the Research School of Pacific Studies in 1973.
Coombs' views on science and technology are outlined in his keynote address to a conference convened by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences in April 1979, entitled 'Science and Technology for What Purpose? An Australian Perspective'. This makes interesting reading even now, twenty years after it was written. He starts with a comment on the title, which he suggests implies that science and technology are directed to a single and common end. While acknowledging that this is the way politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and even many scientists tend to justify the activities of scientists, Coombs notes that this is a recent development. As he puts it, 'there is science for understanding and science for manipulation'. He considers that science as a search for understanding does not need to be justified by the greater power it confers on mankind; rather, it is akin to the creative work of artists and, as a source of enlightenment and liberation, 'a noble expression of the human spirit'. 'A society which fails to give it opportunity and scope will thereby be the poorer'.
He goes on to deal at length with science as a substrate for technology, and emphasises that science for manipulation must be justified by its results, and should be required to demonstrate that the benefits it confers on mankind outweigh the costs: material, social and spiritual. Already, in 1979, he recognizes but deplores the growth of 'mammoth industrial corporations' that are dominated by market forces and focus on optimizing production, with little concern for the social or environmental aspects of their activities. Twenty years later we see these tendencies being vastly increased by the drive towards globalization. In answer to a question, he reiterated his support for creative science, but thought that manipulative science needed 'to reconsider its objective, to reorient to some degree its directions, and, particularly, to examine its impact upon the human and social aspects of society'.To use a phrase now in common parlance among environmentalists, development needs to have concern for three 'bottom lines', economic, social and environmental.
Coombs also stimulated research in the social sciences, for example by arranging for the Commonwealth Bank to set aside a portion of its profits as a fund for university-based research in economics. Much of the work that was carried out by consultants for the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration incorporated original research. His Boyer Lectures in 1970 are a mature expression of his thoughts on the problems of institutionalizing intellectual creativity of all kinds, in the arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Some years later, in 1984, he persuaded the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies to co-sponsor, with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, the University of Western Australia and the Stegley Foundation, the East Kimberley Impact Assessment Project. This was a multidisciplinary and policy-relevant programme carried out to assist Aboriginal people to deal with economic and social changes arising from resource development. It resulted in the production of 25 working papers and a book (Coombs et al., 1989), which provide information that remains relevant to the solution of some of the problems faced by Aboriginal Australians.
At a time when most economists ignored the environmental costs of the modern consumer society, Coombs realised that economic growth had generated substantial environmental problems. He first spoke about these concerns in a lecture to a symposium at the Twelfth Pacific Science Congress in Canberra in 1971 (Coombs, 1972). On his retirement in 1976 he became a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University, and for the next twenty years mixed daily with academics concerned with environmental problems. His concern for problems of conservation were underlined by his acceptance of the position of President of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1977 and 1979. As a result, he became 'increasingly conscious of long-term structural changes in our own and the world economy – especially those arising from the interaction of ecological and economic concerns'. In 1990 he published his 1971 address and seven other papers on this topic that had been produced between 1978 and 1985, together with a chapter outlining his views in 1989, as a book, The Return of Scarcity: Strategies for an Economic Future (Coombs, 1990).
The Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES) was established in 1973, with Frank Fenner as Director. Initially housed in the old Nurses' Home near the John Curtin School, early in 1976 it moved to occupy the upper two floor levels of the newly constructed Life Sciences Library Building. In May that year, after negotiations with the Vice-Chancellor (Sir John Crawford) and the Director, Coombs was appointed a Visiting Fellow in CRES, an appointment that was subject to annual reappointment based on his current intellectual, cultural and social contributions. On moving in, his appearance was transformed from that of the clean-shaven public servant, wearing coat and tie, to a bearded academic in open-neck shirt and pullover, as illustrated in the two full-page photographs of him on the front and the back pages of the book by Foster and Varghese (1996).
Coombs applied himself with vigour to promoting the cause of Aboriginal Australians. From 1989 he spent several months each winter at the North Australia Research Unit (NARU), which he had long before been instrumental in setting up in Darwin as an outpost of the ANU. In 1991 this arrangement was formalized so that his visiting fellowship was held jointly at CRES and NARU. He published extensively, in books (3, 5, 7, 8 and 10), reports, learned journals and newspaper articles, as illustrated in the select bibliography at the end of Aboriginal Autonomy (Coombs, 1994) and the publication list provided at the end of this memoir. In late 1995, while at NARU, he had a disabling stroke from which he never recovered.
From his earliest days in government office, Coombs was known as a 'controlled, low-key sagacious servant of the people'. His vision had been greatly influenced by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which imprinted on his mind the suffering of the under-privileged, to which he reacted with compassion and concern. When, after his appointment to the Council for Aboriginal Affairs in 1968, and especially after his retirement from the public service, he learnt more of the abysmal condition of many Aboriginal Australians, he became a passionate advocate for these disadvantaged people.
Besides having great influence in public affairs by virtue of the many influential positions he held, Coombs was an éminence grise, who worked behind the scenes to achieve results that would serve all Australians. He was a confidant of leading Australians in the arts, in science, in public affairs and in politics. As described in his book Trial Balance (Coombs, 1981), he was personal adviser to seven Prime Ministers, from Curtin to Whitlam, and for such a very busy man he was a prolific writer, producing no fewer than nine books and many published lectures and feature articles in the press.
On the lighter side, he had made a reputation as a rover in Australian Rules football in his youth (his nickname 'Nugget' derived from that), he remained a committed cricket fan all his life, and he regularly played squash into his early 80s. He was an excellent cook and he loved good wine, especially a good red.
Coombs consistently refused to accept an imperial honour; he told his old teacher Sir Walter Murdoch that such an honour would not be 'in character'. When the Order of Australia system was instituted in 1975, he was among the first to be awarded its highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia. However, in 1976, incensed by the introduction of a knighthood (AK), he resigned from the Order.
He was appointed a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1969, and was a Foundation Fellow of both the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He also received a number of honorary degrees: Hon. LLD (ANU, Macquarie, Melbourne, Sydney), Hon. DLitt (WA), and in 1961 he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics. In 1963 the Royal Society of Arts (London) awarded him the R.B. Bennett Commonwealth Prize for services to 'banking, economics and the arts', in 1972 the newspaper The Australian named him as their first 'Australian of the Year' and in 1977 he was awarded the ANZAAS Medal at the 48th Congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1962 the Coombs Building, housing the Research School of Social Sciences and the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies of the Australian National University, was named after him. In 1992 funds were collected for a Nugget Coombs Forum at the North Australia Research Unit and in 1998 the University established the Nugget Coombs Aboriginal Studies Scholarship Scheme, to provide support at the North Australia Research Unit for undergraduate and postgraduate scholars who combined traditional academic disciplines with traditional indigenous knowledge.
He was given a state funeral and a service of thanksgiving was held in St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney on 14 November 1997. He wanted it known that the choice of a Catholic church should not be taken as a sign of a death-bed conversion, but because his wife Lallie would have delighted in it. Somewhat later he was accorded full Aboriginal funeral rites, with scattering of half of his ashes at Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, the only white person to have been so honoured. On 11 March 1999 the other half of his ashes were scattered on the garden at University House, where had lived for so many years. He was survived by three sons and one daughter.
This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, Vol.13, No.1, 2000. It was written by:
© 2023 Australian Academy of Science