John Philip Baxter was born on 7 May 1905 in Machynlleth, North Wales. His father, John Baxter, was the oldest of four children left fatherless at an early age. He began work as a telegraphist with the British Post Office, studied at night school to become an engineer and eventually, after a series of promotions, was in charge of the South West Region, based in Bristol. Philip's mother, Netta Morton, was also employed by the Post Office, as a telegraphist, before her marriage. Her parents, John and Emily (née Houghton), lived in Birmingham – her maternal grandmother had a Russian father and a French mother.
By the time young Baxter went to school, the family had moved to Hereford. There he finished high school and passed the Northern Universities Matriculation at an age of 14, too early to enrol into a university. He passed it again at the age of 15, and then the London University Matriculation Examination when he was 16. By special permission, he then enrolled at Birmingham University. While in high school Baxter excelled in tennis. He was also keen to work with his hands: amongst other things, he built a canoe which was 'moderately successful' (1). Money was not abundant in the Baxter household and Baxter acquired, and retained throughout his life, the habit of economizing and spending carefully (2).
Baxter was interested in metallurgy and enrolled in the Science course at Birmingham. In 1927 he graduated in chemistry with first class honours. A friend of his then transferred to mechanical engineering; Baxter thought that this was a good idea and followed suit. With the financial assistance of the James Watt Research Fellowship, worth £250 per year, he completed his Ph.D. in 1928, working on the propagation of flames in the combustion of carbon monoxide. Thus, the B.Sc. in chemistry and the Ph.D. in mechanical engineering produced a chemical engineer; in those days there were no degree courses in chemical engineering.
While studying in Birmingham, Baxter lived with his maternal grandparents. They were very strict Wesleyans, and this experience may have caused a reaction in Baxter: in his later life he had no affiliation with, nor interest in, religion. During his student days, he played tennis in public tournaments all over England.
Jobs were difficult to obtain at that time, but on the recommendation of his professor, F.H. Burstall, Baxter was offered a position as Research Engineer with the recently-formed company Imperial Chemical Industries Limited (ICI) at Billingham in County Durham, where a new factory was being established for the manufacture of sodium hydroxide. It was there that he met, in 1931, his future wife, Lilian May Thatcher. Her father, Arthur John Thatcher, came from Somerset; he was a railway foreman at the time of his marriage to Mary Richards, from Wales. During the first World War the family lived in many places, as he was a conscientious objector and found it difficult to find employment. He was involved in the labour movement and eventually became the political secretary of the Labour Party in Stockton-on-Tees. Lilian was a secretary before her marriage, as were her two sisters. She also had a brother, who was a mathematics teacher and eventually become a headmaster.
After a short courtship, Philip and Lilian decided to marry, but ICI intervened. Baxter attracted the attention of Dr A. (later Lord) Fleck; a new Division – General Chemicals – was being formed in Widnes and Fleck arranged for Baxter to be transferred there as Research Manager of the Central Laboratory. The wedding was postponed; Baxter went to Widnes to establish himself in the new job, rented a 100-year-old house in a nearby village, Farnworth, and the wedding then took place on 17 August 1931. Three years later they designed and built a new home on the outskirts of the same village in pleasant farm surroundings, in which they lived until leaving England in 1949.
The Central Laboratory had a long history. It was built in 1881 by the United Alkali Company, itself a conglomeration of eight plants, using mainly the old Le Blanc process for the manufacture of sodium hydroxide. The merger facilitated the introduction of the modern Mond process, and the Central Laboratory was to concentrate on chlorine and chlorine derivatives. One of the plants was originally in Liverpool, but it was moved up the Mersey to Widnes because it caused much air pollution. The Central Laboratory, under its founder, the brilliant Ferdinand Hurter, developed important industrial processes, and also laid the foundation of scientific photography. It was one of the first laboratories to be built specifically to carry out original research for industry. The Laboratory and the plants were taken over by ICI in 1926 and the scope of research was increased.
Baxter was only 26 years of age when he was appointed head of this celebrated laboratory, responsible to the Group's Research Manager at Head Office in Liverpool. He found the establishment to be in a run-down condition, and so was Widnes: 70% of its inhabitants were unemployed. Baxter showed great organizing ability, a determination to expand research, and an exceptional talent, already so early in his career, to extract large sums of money from boards (and later from governments). In 1935 he was promoted to Research Manager of ICI General Chemicals, a division which employed 12,000 people. New plants and buildings were erected, the staff greatly increased, and Widnes became a prosperous town.
The main task of the Central Laboratory was to develop processes for new products, especially those containing chlorine and/or fluorine. The electrolysis of sodium chloride solution, which was the basic activity of the General Chemicals Division, produces sodium hydroxide and chlorine, but the demand for the former was usually the greater, and so there was a drive to find new uses for chlorine. Many new products were made and marketed, amongst them a variety of solvents, chlorinated rubber, and the (then) important insecticide gamma benzene hexachloride (Lindane), discovered through the collaboration between the Widnes Laboratory and ICI's Pest Control Station at Jeallot's Hill. This research resulted in numerous patents, some of which carry only Baxter's name, indicating that he was the originator of the invention.
Baxter showed great initiative in supporting new developments. He gave his subordinate managers considerable authority, which by and large they used wisely, but he did allow a somewhat rigid hierarchical structure to develop which may have been detrimental to progress. Around 1938 he reorganized the Central Laboratory into seven sections, each under an Assistant Research Manager; this was facetiously referred to as 'Baxter and the seven dwarfs' and was not considered very successful at the time, although it seemed to settle down later. The general attitude of others to Baxter was one of either white or black; that is, either greatly admired or otherwise, with few shades of grey. This appears to have been the general attitude towards him in his later positions too.
An Australian who worked in the Central Laboratory in 1953 recalls that he was treated kindly by Baxter, without the haughtiness that could be found in other parts of the company (3). However, Baxter's passion for organizing caused some tensions. He played tennis in the Works Club, but was distinctly unpopular there: while acknowledging his professional role in the Company's research, members were unwilling to be organized by him at the tennis court too.
Baxter also showed some interest in politics. Initially he appeared to have had leftist tendencies, possibly under the influence of his family, particularly his mother, but then he shifted towards the right at a time when the general trend was in the opposite direction. He stood as a candidate for local government and was a member of the City Council from 1939 until 1950. Soon he became the leader of the Conservative Party in the Council and chairman of the Party organization. He prided himself that the Conservative Party retained the seat during that period; after Baxter left England, the seat was lost and never regained.
One day in 1940, travelling by train to London, Sir James Chadwick, then Lyon Jones Professor of Physics at the University of Liverpool, asked Baxter whether uranium hexafluoride existed and, if it did, could he supply some? This was a reasonable request, since the Central Laboratory had a reputation for work on fluorine compounds. As a result of this conversation, ICI supplied a sample of the substance. Some time later Chadwick wanted much more, but Baxter replied that he could not put ICI to the expense of setting up a plant without knowing what the material was to be used for. He was then told about the program to construct an atomic bomb. Thus ICI became involved in what was known as the Tube Alloy Project; they supplied 3 kg of uranium hexafluoride to Chadwick, and then set up a plant and manufactured a substantial proportion of the uranium hexafluoride used by the project. The Laboratory also contributed significantly to the foundation of the analytical chemistry of uranium and its derivatives. This work, as well as other classified work related to the atomic energy program, was carried out for the British Govemment. There was also development and construction work on a factory to produce poison gases which, fortunately, were never used.
It is appropriate to quote here from a history of the Widnes plants:
Perhaps the most important single chemical development in Widnes during the Second World War was the application of the accumulated knowledge of fluorine chemistry to the manufacture of uranium metal and its fluoride, essential raw materials in atomic warfare and atomic energy projects. In Widnes Central Laboratory the foundation of the analytical chemistry of uranium was largely worked out, and much of the knowledge then gained was put at the disposal of atomic scientists in America who were engaged upon the production of the atomic weapon itself (4).
On 10 August 1942, during the last of the air-raids on the Merseyside, a bomb fell on the Laboratory causing considerable damage but fortunately no casualties. The end of the main wing was demolished. Baxter apparently persuaded the authorities to permit this to be replaced by a new building beyond the demolished one, thereby allowing a claim later for the gap to be filled by another building.
In 1944 Baxter was promoted to the position of Research Director for General Chemicals. In the same year the British Government seconded him for three months to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the request of the American Government. Obviously this arrangement proved successful because, after its completion, Baxter was again sent to the States, with three collaborators, for an indefinite period. Lilian soon followed him with their four children, travelling on a cargo boat in a convoy. Baxter became Deputy Manager of a factory which then employed 23,000 people. The factory was involved in the separation of uranium isotopes; Baxter was there when the first pure sample of uranium-235 was produced. The material for the Hiroshima bomb was made there; Baxter knew when and where it was to be dropped but he could not tell even his own wife. Lilian asked no questions.
Baxter was greatly impressed by American efficiency. He used to tell the story of his first meeting at Oak Ridge to discuss plans for his future activities. He was asked to outline his laboratory requirements and he provided an overall idea of the area. When the meeting finished, much later in the evening, and he left the building, he found a huge bulldozer excavating under floodlights on a nearby site. On inquiring, he was told that it was preparing the site for his future laboratory. This 'get up and go' attitude was very much in accord with Baxter's own style. Undoubtedly Baxter would have received offers to stay in America but, despite his admiration for some of the features of that country, he considered it unsuitable for bringing up there his young family.
After the War the Baxters returned to Widnes. Baxter resumed his position as Research Director of the General Chemicals Division; he was also a director of Thorium Ltd. and a consultant on the British post-war Atomic Energy program. He was involved in the construction of facilities at Harwell and Windscale and was directly responsible for some of the research work on separation processes, being a member of the Chemical Separation Plant Committee. He was well-off and certain of further rapid advancement in ICI, but apparently he became restless and began to look for greener pastures. He was disappointed when ICI withdrew from the production of nuclear energy; having four young children, he was unhappy about the political and economic situation in post-war England. At the end of 1949 he resigned from ICI and left England for Australia.
His departure was received, by most of the staff of ICI, with real regret and great surprise because a bright future at ICI would have been certain. He left behind an active, well equipped laboratory, eager to explore new techniques, that subsequently proved its abilities in the intense post-war development of processes and products.
In 1949 Baxter read that a new university, just being established in Sydney and specializing in technology, was seeking a Professor of Chemical Engineering. He expressed an interest and, in due course, was offered the position. Australia was a continent he had not visited – he consulted Dr F.T. Meehan (who was later to become Chairman of ICIANZ) and other Australians, and their answers must have been reassuring because Baxter accepted the offer. The Baxter family sailed on the Orcades and arrived in Sydney on 16 January 1950. He bought a large house in the once-fashionable suburb of Enfield, renovated it, and lived there for the rest of his life.
Seeing the university was a bit of a shock: there was no university – only some buildings of the Sydney Technical College being used temporarily by the University. Baxter was not unduly worried; it was not as bad as it had been to arrive in Widnes 20 years earlier. As it turned out, Chemical Engineering was the first School to move to the permanent site in Kensington in 1953 but, by that time, Baxter had become Director of the University.
The Department of Chemical Engineering, part of the School of Chemistry in the Technical College, conducted diploma courses of a professional level in chemical engineering and in industrial chemistry, established by the farseeing and energetic Dr R.K. Murphy. There was adequate equipment for these courses but only one permanent staff member; most of the teaching was carried out by part-time staff. Baxter took over these courses and upgraded and extended them to degree standard. The University also offered conversion courses to allow diplomates of the College to gain a B.Sc. degree by two years' part-time study. When Baxter was appointed, the Department was separated from the School of Chemistry and established as a School of Chemical Engineering. Baxter had new staff appointed, enlarged the scope of teaching, and introduced new subjects for research. The first chemical engineering students of the University enrolled in 1949, and at the first graduation ceremony in 1952 nine students were awarded the degree of B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering.
The Technical College also offered a course in Food Technology. On the recommendation of Dr F. Reuter, and after discussion with various food industries, Baxter established an Associate Professorship in Food Technology and created a Department of Food Technology, the only such department in an Australian university until recent times. Degree courses in Food Technology started in 1952. In the same year Baxter arranged to conduct an ad hoc, two-year course in food technology under the Colombo Plan. This was the beginning of an enterprise, still operative after 40 years, by which many hundreds of students from these countries, mostly postgraduates have been educated in food science and technology and are now working there in universities and in industry.
Although Baxter had had no previous academic experience, his lecture course was carefully prepared, well delivered and popular with the students. He had several higher degree students who received much attention from him; their subjects being mainly extensions of Baxter's work in England. He fostered connections with industry, particularly with ICIANZ, and he raised money for research projects. And he gave numerous lectures to outside bodies, particularly to high school students. Altogether, he was a good professor.
Baxter often stated later that his intention in coming to Australia was to settle down to a quiet academic life (5). Few people would believe this. In the early 1950s he told a colleague that he always wanted to build a new university and that this was his opportunity to do so. In fact, it soon became clear that his experience and ability in administration was of more immediate value to the new University than his knowledge of chemical engineering. In 1952 he was appointed Deputy Director and in 1953 Director of the University; this title was changed to that of Vice-Chancellor in 1955. He remained Vice-Chancellor until his retirement from the University in 1969; that is, during the whole crucial period of its rapid growth.
It is necessary to give some background here on the University of New South Wales (6). It was set up, under the name of New South Wales University of Technology, by an Act of the NSW Parliament, on 22 March 1949. It was the first time that a second university was established in an Australian state, and most of the people were not convinced that a second university was necessary. It was to have been modelled mainly on M.I.T. in the USA to provide higher education in science, technology and engineering. The university took over some high-level diploma courses from the Sydney Technical College, together with the staff teaching them, and it was temporarily housed in buildings of the Technical College.
Six professors were appointed in 1950; Baxter was one of them. The first years were not easy. The Act of Incorporation provided for the university to be autonomous from a date to be determined (the 'appointed day'); in the meanwhile it was administered by the Department of Technical Education; that is, by the Public Service. The Head of the university administration, as Acting Director, was Arthur Denning, who was also Director of Technical Education. Dissatisfaction soon arose with this administration (Baxter once described it as 'distant and dictatorial bureaucracy'), mainly amongst the professors, and it culminated in a long and outspoken letter, addressed to the University Council, signed by four of the professors, demanding immediate steps to achieve autonomy for the university.
Baxter was not asked to sign this letter. His views were known: he was not one to rebel against authority; he believed in planned progress rather than precipitate action. Council, however, responded to the letter by setting up a committee to recommend on steps leading to autonomy. The committee suggested, a year later, the immediate appointment of a full-time Director of the University. Council accepted this recommendation and called for applications. There were only two applicants: Denning, the Acting Director, and Baxter, the Deputy Director. By a secret vote, Council decided to appoint Baxter and he took up his appointment as Director on 1 January 1953. His title was changed to Vice-Chancellor in 1955.
Baxter later claimed that the Chancellor, Wallace Wurth, asked him to take over the job of Director (7). This is probably true. While it cannot be denied that Baxter built up the University, it must be acknowledged that he had powerful backers. Wurth, who was Chairman of the Public Service Board, was a man of great power and could provide facilities and services to the new university which would otherwise not have been available, and he was a keen supporter of the university from its very beginnings. Baxter kept very good relations with Wurth, and also with R.J. Heffron, then Minister of Education and later Premier of New South Wales, who was also a great supporter of the university. The three of them made a formidable team.
Professor Baxter took on an unenviable task. The university had no buildings and insufficient land at its proposed site in Kensington; its funds, in common with those of other universities, were allocated annually and there was no guarantee of continuing funds; staff morale was low owing to the delay in granting autonomy; and there was little public support for the new university. The Sydney Morning Herald told its readers from time to time that the new university was unnecesary and, in any case, would never be on a higher level than a technical college.
Baxter was not daunted by this task. He prodded and coaxed and pushed the new university into rapid growth, both in size and in stature. This prodding was necessary because the rate of growth was too rapid even for some of the academic staff; they would have preferred a more leisurely pace. When Baxter became Vice-Chancellor in 1955 the University had 3751 students; when he retired in 1969 there were 15,988. Even that was not enough for Baxter; he talked about reaching 25,000. In the fifties this horrified some of the staff; now when, for example, Monash University may have 27,000 students, such numbers have become acceptable. This is yet another example of Baxter being ahead of his times. Fortunately for the University of New South Wales, the size of its campus and the tightening of funds in the seventies prevented it from continuing its rapid growth: student numbers stabilized around 18,000.
Baxter supervised the university's move to Kensington. This was not easy. With a constant shortage of accommodation, some departments moved into temporary huts (which still stand on the campus); the layout of the first building was revised several times during and after its construction. The Chemistry building, one of the first to be built, housed the library for several years and the Schools of Anatomy and Physiology for one year, while the staff of the School of Chemistry was split between Kensington and Ultimo. The ingenuity and the persuasive powers of the Vice-Chancellor were sorely taxed to keep the staff reasonably happy. Suggestions that the number of students be restricted were firmly rejected by Baxter.
Colleges of the University were established in Newcastle and Wollongong. Baxter was inclined to spread the University all over the State – he talked of 25 colleges – but such ideas found no support. Ultimately he greatly assisted the two colleges to become independent universities.
The break in these difficult times came with the advent of the Murray Committee, set up by R.G. Menzies, in 1957. Two of its recommendations, which were accepted by the Government, were vital for the new university. Triennial funding allowed, at last, forward planning with assurance of funds; and the Committee recommended that a second medical school be established in Sydney, located at the New South Wales University of Technology. There was considerable opposition to this proposal, even within the university; it was considered that such a move would thwart the original purpose of the university to cater mainly for applied science and technology. Nobody mentioned the fact that medicine is a branch of applied science and technology. Baxter, however, persuaded Council that, even if a medical school were added, the university would still retain its character; it had the largest engineering schools of all Australian universities and offered a number of applied science courses not available at other universities. The medical school was established, and also a Faculty of Arts; the State Government provided additional land; in deference to medical sensitivity, and as recommended by the Murray Commission, the name of the university was changed to University of New South Wales; and for the next dozen years there was constant building activity on the campus.
The University had been in existence for over three years when Baxter took control, but little progress had been made. Baxter's successor, Sir Rupert Myers, described him as its 'essential founder' (8).
The first years of the Baxter regime were not easy. He had to administer some bitter pills for the sake of the university's health, the kind of pills that are now administered by governments to all universities. There were also some disturbing incidents.
In 1956 a selection committee recommended the appointment of Dr Russel Ward to the position of lecturer in history in Professor R.M. Hartwell's department. The recommendation was not acted upon, despite Hartwell raising this matter in Council. Hartwell then claimed that he was told that Ward was regarded as a security risk, presumably because at one time he had been a member of the Communist Party. Baxter denied this and issued a statement that the university had never applied any political or religious tests to its lecturing staff. Ward was not appointed; Hartwell resigned in protest and left the country; and much acrimonious debate resulted in the University and in the press. Years later, in his reminiscences, Baxter claimed that, at that time, all appointments to the university were made by the Public Service Board and that he had no say in the matter. This is not correct: the incident occurred after the 'appointed day' (1954), when the university had sole control of its affairs. The reason for Ward's non-appointment is not known; Baxter claimed, rightly, that reasons for appointment or non-appointment are confidential and their disclosure would be a breach of confidence. It is likely that the appointment was vetoed by the Chancellor, Wallace Wurth, who was also Chairman of the Public Service Board. Baxter probably went along without attaching much importance to the case; but once the decision was made, he defended it vigorously, though it appeared to be indefensible. This cause celèbre caused much damage to the university's morale and reputation (9).
In 1958 strain developed between the Vice-Chancellor and the academic staff, the reason being the position of the deans. The Act specified that deans were appointed by Council. This was a procedure different from that in most Australian universities where the deans were elected by the faculties. Nobody appeared to be concerned by this provision; it was generally assumed that Council would appoint as deans the persons elected by the faculties. This was not, however, Baxter's view of university governance; he visualized the deans as the people to whom he would delegate authority and who would work with him in close collaboration – something like a cabinet. He claimed that faculties would sometimes elect people who, though excellent and popular, might not be able or willing to carry the heavy administrative responsibility Baxter would place on them – those he sometimes described as being 'good merely at teaching and research'. He insisted that he could run the university efficiently only with the deans he selected himself. However, the by-laws provided for the dean to be the Chairman of the Faculty. The faculties would not give up their power to run their business under chairmen elected by them. Baxter addressed the faculties but to no avail; committees were formed to report on the matter; and finally, at a meeting of the Professorial Board in 1959, Baxter proposed a compromise. The job of the deans was to be divided into two. The faculties would elect their own chairmen, who would look after academic matters; and the deans, appointed, would deal with administrative matters, such as finance and personnel. The by-laws were changed accordingly. This system proved to be workable; in fact, as the University grew, there was found to be sufficient work for two people. This dual system of faculty administration, probably unique to the University of New South Wales, has been retained by Baxter's successors.
Baxter, however, was still unhappy abort the faculties. He claimed that bodies as large as the faculties (and the Professorial Board) were inefficient and took months to make a decision. He would have liked to replace them by smaller bodies. Ultimately both the faculties and the Board set up executive committees which carried out the detailed discussions and made recommendations to the larger bodies, but the power of decision remained with the parent bodies. Shortly before he retired, in March 1969, Baxter made another attempt to change the system. He submitted a paper to Council in which he reiterated his earlier views on the inefficiency of faculties and recommended sweeping changes. The submission also raised another controversial issue, that of the pass rates, which he considered to be too low. There was strong opposition to Baxter's proposals, and the matter came to a head at a meeting of the Staff Association, where there was a heated exchange between the Vice-Chancellor and his audience. Baxter walked out of the meeting. The issues remained to be settled by his successor.
With his 64th birthday approaching, Baxter decided in 1969 that it was time to retire from the Vice-Chancellorship; he had two other jobs to look after. In particular, nuclear energy appeared to require more of his attention. He retired on 30 June 1969; an era came to its end. A newspaper announced: 'Even his enemies concede that he'll be hard to replace' (10). The coarse headline was essentially true; it is doubtful if anyone else but Baxter could have achieved such rapid progress of the university in 17 years. It was well on its way to becoming Australia's largest university. As it turned out, a suitable successor was found in the person of Professor R.H. (now Sir Rupert) Myers, who had been working, as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, in close collaboration with Baxter for eight years. But Myers's job was different: Baxter's retirement coincided with the cessation of the ready flow of funds to universities. His job was that of consolidation, rather than controlling rapid growth.
Myers succinctly summarized the Baxter years: 'History will show Sir Philip Baxter to have been a great educational administrator who built a fine university and made many beneficial changes in the ways universities handled their business and interacted with governments and the community' (11).
Baxter, indeed, proved to be a great educational administrator. When one of his chemical engineering students asked him how to succeed in his job, he replied: 'Make your job your hobby'. Undoubtedly that is what he did himself. He had a tremendous capacity for work. His secret was good organization, extensive delegation, and a clear view of the objectives to be achieved and of the best way to achieve them.
He was often described as authoritarian but that is a misinterpretation of his behaviour. Rather, he was sure of his ground, felt that he knew the right solutions to his problems and was not easily diverted from them; but he usually achieved his objectives by persuasion. He was very good at persuasion. Often a delegation, seeking to talk to him about some grievance, left satisfied, only to realize hours or days later than their demands were not met. It has been said that, even if he fired you, he would have done it so kindly, so helpfully and convincingly that you would have thanked him for it.
Baxter was a tall man, erect, with easy manners. He was a good conversationalist though he did not seek social life. He was an efficient chairman: business was dealt with promptly and thoroughly under his chairmanship. He put his cards on the table and then pointed out that he had a good deck. He was a very skilled negotiator. He rarely lost his temper, but when his path was crossed he could be ruthless. He delegated authority extensively, but he then expected it to be used to produce results. He rarely lost sleep over the decisions he made; he believed that decisions should be upheld even if possibly better ones appeared later – this being better than admitting weakness or errors in the system. He made himself available to staff and students. He maintained good relations with the University Council: he would not submit to it any proposals unless he was sure that they would be accepted (if necessary, by prior consultation with influential members). He had a gift for seizing opportunities to correct errors of the past.
Baxter's style of administration, however, was not the usual one of Australian Vice-Chancellors. His background was industrial, not academic, and he learned some good lessons there. As a result he introduced practices which were novel and not always well received. He used to refer to the eleventh commandment of universities: 'Thou shalt never do anything for the first time'; and he boasted that his university was distinguished for the number of occasions on which it broke that commandment.
The appointment of deans, already referred to, was one of these innovations. Another was the Vice-Chancellor's Advisory Committee (VCAC). Originally set up as the Deans' Committee, it was renamed VCAC in 1960. Its members were the Vice-Chancellor, the Pro-Vice-Chancellors, the Deans, the Chairman of the Professorial Board, the Bursar and the Registrar. VCAC met every Wednesday of the year; after some formal businss any problem could be raised by any member. This meant that any problem that occurred in the university could be discussed at the highest level within a week. There was no agenda and only the briefest records were kept; the Vice-Chancellor could, and did, take the members into his confidence. VCAC had no legal standing and no powers whatsoever; however, since its members were powerful, its decisions could promptly be put into practice. In fact, VCAC was the core of the administration of the university. After Baxter's retirement, VCAC was retained by his successors.
In 1959 Baxter established Unisearch Ltd. a wholly owned subsidiary company of the university to offer the experience and the facilities of the university to industry and commerce. It was the first organization of this kind in the British Commonwealth. The company arranges contracts between staff members and outside organizations, directs outside enquiries to suitable staff members, and takes out patents on behalf of staff. Its profits are distributed to research groups within the University. There was quite a lot of criticism of such practical use of university research but, as usual, Baxter was merely ahead of his times. Unisearch proved to be a success and, by now, every major university in Australia has set up a similar organization.
In accordance with the university's special technological character, Baxter established a number of unusual schools. Since he firmly believed that Australia should build nuclear power plants, he established a School of Nuclear Engineering; after the Government decided not to build one, this School was allowed to decline. A School of Textile Technology was established; it was very active in research, particularly in the first two decades of its existence. The Department of Food Technology later developed into a School of Food Technology. Schools of Highway Engineering and Traffic Engineering were founded. The School of Wool Technology was already in existence before Baxter became Director. Other novel courses were those in Naval Architecture, Health Administration and Landscape Architecture. When the Faculty of Arts was established, Baxter wanted it to be a small elite faculty and thought that the University of Sydney should carry the big load of pass students as his University had done in sciences and engineering. Ultimately this aim was defeated by the growing pressure of student numbers. He believed that all Arts students should have a grounding in science in their university course – the converse of compulsory humanities for science and engineering students, which was a feature of all University of New South Wales courses. This philosophy was adopted by Council.
At times Baxter found it necessary to apply some diplomacy or even cunning to achieve his aim; two examples are given here. The university had no building suitable for graduating ceremonies and other large-scale events. Graduation ceremonies were held outdoors; fortunately the weather was fine until 1959 – then it rained. The prospect of obtaining finance from the government for a 'Great Hall', at a time when accommodation was so scarce, seemed hopeless. Baxter requested funds for a large multi-purpose lecture theatre to provide economy in the handling of the rapidly increasing numbers of students. When it was built in 1960, the new hall, named Science Theatre, was found to have 1000 seats, a stage with good lighting and audio facilities, with wooden panelling throughout. It was ideal for graduation ceremonies and other ceremonial occasions and has been thus used ever since.
In 1956 the School of Chemical Engineering – Baxter's own school – submitted proposals for an undergraduate degree course in paint technology. The Faculty of Applied Science rejected the course, arguing that it was too specialized, lacking basic science in its content, and would restrict the graduates to a very small segment of the chemical industry. Soon after, Baxter submitted proposals to Council for the division of the Faculty of Applied Science into two faculties (Science and Technology), arguing that the Faculty was too large for efficient administration. Council accepted the proposals: the more technological schools, including that of Chemical Engineering, became part of the new Faculty of Technology. The proposal for the paint technology course was submitted to the new faculty, and was accepted (12).
A few other innovative arrangements may be mentioned. When the medical school was set up, Baxter insisted that the professors of medicine should not merely have access to hospital departments but should be responsible for running them – a very sensible arrangement but new to Australia at that time. Baxter established a School of Business Administration and also an Institute of Administration in 1960; the latter provided no undergraduate courses but arranged ad hoc courses for industry, commerce, government, and also for university staff. The standing the university thus established in administration was the main reason why the Cyert Committee, established by the Commonwealth Government in 1969, recommended that the Australian Graduate School of Management be located on the campus of the University of New South Wales. An Institute of Languages was also established to provide language courses for students, including courses in English. Sites for these institutes were found outside the Kensington campus.
The university also pioneered the use of radio in instruction. Initially it had difficulties in obtaining a broadcasting licence, and then it was given one for a station of very low power, covering only a small district around the University. The wavelength was outside the broadcasting band and the University provided students with an adaptor to enable them to receive the broadcasts on commercial radio equipment. A charge was made for the adaptor; this was, in fact, a charge for the course. When the university could show that it had 6000 paying students for the broadcasts, it was ultimately issued a licence for a station with a wide range. Later the University set up a television station too. These programs covered not only university subjects but also courses to update the knowledge of people outside the university. The university also pioneered the use of closed-circuit television for the teaching of large classes.
Apart from work, there was very little to do in Billingham in 1930. Looking for some diversion, Baxter joined the drama club of the Literary and Philosophical Society in nearby Stockton-on-Tees, and this action had a profound effect on his life. There he met his future wife, Lilian, and there he also acquired a lifetime interest in the theatre. He was later Deputy Chairman of the Works Dramatic Club in Widnes. Even when he became Vice-Chancellor, he took part in the activities of the University Drama Club; on one occasion he was producer of a play in which his wife, his daughter Valerie and his future son-in-law Brian Craven were playing parts. On another occasion he played the hero in a play, while Valerie was the heroine.
This interest in the theatre undoubtedly played some part in the foundation of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). In 1958 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Elizabethan Theatre Trust were having discussions about ways to improve the training of actors in Australia. They approached Baxter and Sir George Paton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, about possible cooperation. Melbourne University, which had an excellent theatre, was much better equipped for this task, and Baxter stood aside. However, Paton made a mistake: after making all necessary arrangements with the ABC and the Trust, he put the proposals to the Professorial Board which rejected them, arguing that the training of actors was not a function of the university. The bat was handed back to Baxter; he put similar proposals to his University Council which accepted them.
In fact, there was no question of the university training actors. Baxter's proposal was for a company of limited liability in which the ABC, the university and the Trust would jointly appoint directors. Baxter became one of the directors nominated by the university. NIDA is independent of the university; its students do not take any university courses and do not receive university degrees. The Trust provided funds, the ABC experts and tutors, and the university provided accommodation and services; that is, a home in Kensington. This home initially consisted of old huts in a secluded corner of the campus, providing rather spartan accommodation; ultimately, when the Federal Government provided funds, an excellent and attractive building was erected, still on the university grounds.
NIDA proved to be a great success. Many of Australia's present leading actors, directors and theatre designers are graduates of NIDA. The university also provided the Director of NIDA in the person of Robert Quentin, who was also the founding Head of the university's Department of Drama. He set up the now legendary Old Tote Theatre Company, which gave many Australian plays their first performance. Baxter arranged for a rather unsuitable lecture theatre to be converted into a pleasant stage theatre for the Old Tote Company.
In 1966 an enterprising group of ladies, the U Committee, staged a concert at the university as part of their fundraising program. They invited the music critic of the Sydney Morning Herald, Roger Covell, who met Baxter on this occasion and was impressed by the concert and by the university. Baxter did recognise a good thing when he saw it. There was no department of music at the University, nor any plans to create one; but Baxter established a Senior Lectureship of Music in the Vice-Chancellor's Unit and offered it to Covell. Covell has done wonders to the musical life of the university: his University of NSW Opera Company performed many operas that would otherwise not have been seen in Sydney, established the Grainger Singers and ultimately the prestigious Australia Ensemble. In due course, naturally, this led to the creation of a Department of Music and Covell became its Head and Professor of Music.
Vice-Chancellors (and Chancellors) have the privilege of having their portraits painted for hanging in the Council (or Senate) Chambers by a painter of their choice. Baxter had the inspiration to choose Judy Cassab for this job. Cassab appeared to gain a deep insight into Baxter's character and painted a magnificent portrait. Curiously, she painted him not as he then was (in 1963) but as he appeared some fifteen years later.
Baxter also started the University's collection of paintings. He considered the purchase of works by young Australian artists a good investment – both financially and culturally – for the University. With the Bursar, J.O.A. Bourke, he used to visit art galleries and auction rooms to pick a bargain. His favourite acquisition was John Passmore's 'The Wave'.
In 1950 the Australian Government established the Industrial Atomic Energy Policy Committee; Baxter was an obvious choice for its membership. His participation was responsible for much of the detail of the Atomic Energy Act which, on 15 April 1953, set up the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC). Baxter became its Deputy Chairman; the Chairman was Major-General J.E.S. (later Sir Jack) Stevens, formerly Secretary of the Department of Supply. The expert on uranium mining on the Commission was Dr H.G. Raggatt FAA.
When Sir Jack resigned from the AAEC in 1956, Baxter was offered the Chairmanship on a full-time basis. He declined, not wishing to leave the university. However, the search for another potential chairman was unsuccessful and Baxter was asked in 1957 to become part-time Chairman; after consulting the Chancellor, Baxter accepted the job. It suited him well; it allowed him to retain an interest in a field in which he had experience while working in an administrative position. He believed that having two different jobs is an advantage; that when the problems in one job become overwhelming, it is good to concentrate on the other one – and that when one returns to the first one, the problems appear less formidable (13).
Thus, again, Baxter was thrust into building up an organization from its initial stage. He spent every Friday with AAEC, either at the head office or at the Research Establishment. The actual time spent on AAEC was somewhat more than one fifth, because he travelled extensively overseas on AAEC business. Through his part-time job he left an indelible impression on Australian nuclear activities, which were dominated by his ideas, initiatives and enthusiasm (14). Most of the developments in AAEC started as Baxter's ideas. Baxter's persuasive powers were again set into operation. He insisted that the Commission's decisions be unanimous, not wanting to have any dissenting opinions on record.
In 1953 nuclear science and technology were practically non-existent in Australia. Staff were recruited and sent for training to England, mostly to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. It was Baxter's influence, with his early connections with atomic energy research in the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom and his close contact with Sir John Cockcroft, Director of the Establishment at Harwell, which led to the necessary security clearances and to the secondment of Australian staff to work as members of the Harwell groups. They were accepted as full working members of the UK team. Baxter personally arranged the details and he had the confidence of the UK authorities. He believed that the only way for Australia to enter the nuclear age was for its staff to work as members of a team in an established nuclear research centre. By 1956 there were about 60 AAEC scientists and engineers working at Harwell, including the Chief Scientist, Charles Watson-Munro (later FAA). Baxter visited them several times. AAEC research began at Harwell.
The Commission moved into its Headquarters, an old building in Coogee no longer required by the Government. The initial plans called for building a small Research Establishment in nearby Long Bay, but Baxter persuaded the Government that a nuclear reactor was essential for the activities of AAEC. Baxter was willing to site this reactor in Long Bay, but his colleagues on the Commission persuaded him that this would be unwise. A site was then selected at Lucas Heights, south of Sydney, on a hill offering solid foundations, surrounded by valleys, uninhabited, with a good water supply. Construction of a substantial research establishment was commenced in 1955 and progressed with remarkable speed.
It must be realized that in the early fifties nuclear technology was still the perquisite of a few nations and was shrouded in secrecy. Only members of the 'club' had access even to restricted information. Hence Baxter insisted that AAEC carry out original research, the results of which could be traded for the knowledge of others, and that staff of AAEC regularly attend overseas conferences and visit overseas establishments.
The reactor system chosen for study was the high temperature gas-cooled reactor, using beryllium oxide as moderator, a system not studied elsewhere. This program was terminated in 1966; it was then clear that it was not competitive with others established overseas, but it served its purpose of building up a group of experts in nuclear science. Australia was then recognized as the leading nation in South-East Asia in atomic energy. It appeared at that stage that there was a good chance of Australia building nuclear power plants in the late seventies. Hence the established nuclear reactor systems were studied and teams were sent to Canada and Britain, where they were regarded as equals and were given information freely. Extensive studies by AAEC indicated that a nuclear power plant in Australia would be economically feasible.
AAEC's interest, however, was not restricted to power generation. During its early stages there was urgency to mine and extract uranium at Rum Jungle; the mine in the Northern Territory was operated under contract to the AAEC. When the contract expired, Baxter insisted that the mine should continue operation until it exhausted its ore supply. The resultant yellowcake was stored at Lucas Heights and proved to be of considerable value at a later stage.
Baxter realized that it was not good economic policy to sell uranium in its natural state. Uranium enriched in the isotope 235 would command a much higher price and could be the basis of an important export industry for Australia. Hence the Research Establishment paid much attention to processes of uranium enrichment. The policy of AAEC was to work only on peaceful uses of atomic energy, and none of its projects was secret. However, the uranium enrichment work remained unannounced for quite a while because Baxter was worried about the possible effect of newspaper headlines connecting the work at Lucas Heights with atomic weapons. Despite all the successful work there, construction of a commercial enrichment plant was prevented by political considerations – and also, possibly, by the high cost of the project.
In 1954 Baxter and his research team at Harwell decided to centre the Lucas Heights Establishment around a high-flux heavy-water-moderated reactor. The high-flux reactor erected there was named HIFAR (high-flux Australian reactor). It not only provided a very high flux (1014 neutrons/cm2.sec) of neutrons for radioisotope production but also served as a materials testing reactor for the reactor systems for commercial use that were studied at Lucas Heights. It went 'critical' on Australia Day in 1957, and it is still in operation after several refurbishments, a life much longer than the average. HIFAR was essential to the AAEC research program; the results obtained on this system led to AAEC's international reputation.
Once the atomic reactor was installed at Lucas Heights, much attention was devoted to the production of radioisotopes. Some of these cannot be imported from overseas owing to their short lifetimes. From 1960 on, Lucas Heights produced innumerable samples of radioactive substances for medical, industrial and research purposes.
At its peak in 1967-68, the Research Establishment had about 1300 staff, including 400 graduates, and an annual budget of 4 million dollars. The spin-off to Australian science and technology was enormous. The high scientific standing of AAEC was recognized internationally too. The International Atomic Energy Agency was founded in 1957, with headquarters in Vienna, in order to exploit the uses of atomic energy for the betterment of mankind and to restrict its use for military purposes. Australia has been a Member State and a member of its Board of Governors since its inception. Baxter became Australia's representative on the Board and attended most of its meetings; he was elected Chairman of the Board of Governors for 1969-1970. He enjoyed these visits to Vienna. Some of the members of the Board were not scientists but politicians, and Baxter found some of the meetings 'illuminating and fascinating' (15).
Baxter, with his great organizing ability, made sure that the expensive facilities of Lucas Heights were widely used. In 1958 he established the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE), involving all Australian universities, to make the facilities of the Research Establishment available to research workers in the universities and to facilitate contact of the AAEC staff with the universities. Thus many research projects at universities could make use of the unique facilities (for example, neutron irradiation) at Lucas Heights. Two years later Baxter established the Australian School of Nuclear Technology at Lucas Heights as a cooperative venture betwen AAEC and the University of New South Wales. This School has trained many Australians, and also visitors from South-East Asia, in reactor technology, radiation protection and the applications of radiation and radioisotopes.
Baxter established a private dining room at Lucas Heights for the use of senior staff, and he entertained there a variety of important people, including politicans and overseas visitors. Food, wine and service were of high quality but not ostentatious. Baxter considered this as an important part of his effort to establish nuclear science and technology in Australia: it helped to engender goodwill and the support of important people in an unobtrusive way.
When he retired from the university, Baxter became full-time Chairman of AAEC in 1969. He then had time enough to do what he liked to do: to discuss in detail the work of each research worker and to make useful suggestions to them. But he was very scrupulous always to report his conversations to the Director of AAEC, K.F. Alder, so as not to create the impression that he was trying to bypass his authority.
Baxter was dedicated to the grand nuclear plan of nuclear science: uranium mining and refining, and nuclear power generation. He had the confidence and support of most of the influential Liberal and Country Party politicians. True, the cost and resources may have been beyond Australia's grasp at that time but Baxter's vision was of a gradual accomplishment, which ultimately would have been of enormous value to Australian science and technology in the 21st century. Studies of nuclear power plants continued and strong recommendations were forwarded to the Government for one to be erected in Australia. In 1968 Prime Minister J.G. Gorton announced that Australia would build its first nuclear power plant. Baxter then became full-time Chairman of AAEC, and much preparatory work was carried out on the specifications for the power station. A site was selected at Jervis Bay remote from population and close to plentiful supply of cooling water; preparatory ground works were carried out and an access road was constructed. However, in June 1971 the Government deferred the project. The grounds for this decision were not environmental – in the sixties this was not yet a decisive factor. Prime Minister W. McMahon, still a treasurer at heart, found the expense – some 1300 million dollars – too high. This was the death-knell for Jervis Bay and a heavy blow for Baxter; in July 1972 the project was further deferred and, after Whitlam came to power in December 1972, it was never revived.
Baxter retired from AAEC on 15 April 1972.
In 1961 the Sydney Opera House Trust Act established the Trust as a body of eminent citizens to advise the Government on policy matters related to the Opera House. By 1969, the Government realized that action was needed, rather than advice: the Act was amended to make the Trust a smaller body with greatly increased responsibilities. A completely new group of people were appointed to the Trust, making it a strong body representing business, industry, law, banking, the performing arts and the public service. Baxter was appointed Chairman; he was just about to retire from the Vice-Chancellorship. Thus, for the fourth time, Baxter was called upon to take the helm of a vessel already launched but floundering, not ready to take to the high seas. The first meeting of the Trust took place on 27 May 1969.
The objects and functions of the Trust were, first of all, the administration, care, control, management and maintenance of the Opera House; that is, complete responsibility for everything in, and concerning, this new cultural centre. It was also charged with the provision of facilities for the production of music, opera, ballet, theatre and a number of related activities in the building. Curiously, the objects also included 'promotion of artistic taste and achievement' (in any branches of the arts referred to elsewhere) and 'scientific research into, and the encouragement of, new and improved forms of entertainment and methods of presentation of entertainment'.
This was probably Baxter's most challenging job. Before, during and after its opening, the Opera House was going to have world-wide coverage, and had to be a success: one could not afford to make a single mistake. In 1969, however, the prospects were not bright. After the initial enthusiasm, the dismissal of Utzon and the continuing delays in construction and increase in the cost caused the public to become frustrated with the Opera House project. The Government was worried, the potential hirers of the halls were unenthusiastic, the construction authority was uncertain and members of the Trust were far from unanimous. Baxter had more difficulty imposing his will on the Trust than he had had with the University Council; he had to use all his administrative skills and tricks. He was respected as a Chairman but not popular.
The Trust met only once a month, but committees were soon set up to deal with specific subjects; by 1973 there were five of them. Baxter was a member ex officio of each committee. There were plenty of matters to attend to between these meetings, and Baxter worked closely with the General Manager, Frank Barnes. It is interesting to note that Barnes also had a background of academic administration; only the Deputy Manager, David Lloyd Martin, had managerial experience in the performing arts. Nevertheless, they worked well together in establishing administrative procedures for running the multifarious activities of the Opera House. There were difficulties in recruiting staff; it took several years to find a suitable Manager. The Opera House is a very complex building and has many functions; there is nothing comparable to it in Australia, and very few anywhere in the world. To mention one example: there are 31 plant rooms in the building complex, each of a specialized nature (compared with 2 or 3 in a multistorey office building).
The opening ceremony was not Baxter's responsibility; another committee was set up for this task under the chairmanship of Sir Asher Joel, but Baxter was the Deputy Chairman of this committee. As the date (20 October 1973) approached, the difficulties increased. In January the staff numbered only 23; this had to be increased more than tenfold in less than a year. There was no way to train new staff because space in the Opera House was not yet available. In April the staff moved into the new building, but only office space could be occupied; any activities in the theatres would have hindered the builders. There were particular difficulties with the box office: no people could be found with training enabling them to handle up to eight different productions a day. Initially there were sudden changes in programs and dates. Baxter, a part-time and unpaid Chairman, was kept busy. Under his authority, staff worked far beyond the demand of duty.
Baxter enjoyed these activities very much. He loved the atmosphere of the Opera House; he liked to stroll along the many corridors and inspect various rooms and activities. After the Opera House had been opened, he attended most of the concerts and operas. It must have caused him great satisfaction that the Old Tote was chosen as the theatre company resident in the Drama Theatre.
Baxter retired from the Trust in 1975, on his 70th birthday, in accordance with the provisions of the Act.
After his retirement, Baxter spent much time with his family. His daughter, Valerie, a teacher and artist, married Dr B.R. Craven, a Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Three years after Valerie's birth the Baxters adopted a boy, Peter. He was killed in a car accident in the late sixties, leaving his widow, Annette, with four children. The second son, Denis, an architect, lived next door for a number of years, so Baxter saw a lot of three of his thirteen grandchildren. The third son, Roderick, is a computer technician and lives in Canberra. Baxter's sister Muriel, unmarried and five years his senior, still lives in England.
Lilian gave him unfailing support for 58 years. Her role in his achievements is best summarized in Baxter's own words: 'A great deal of the success I've had...I owe to [my wife's] complete and loyal support on every occasion and to the fact that she has always been able, particularly in the University, to move among the staff, to be popular, never to be critical of them, never get herself into any arguments or into disputes of any kind. People often say that, in the case of a clergyman, his wife is the most important person he has if he is to be successful. This is equally true of a vice-chancellor' (16).
In Who's Who in Australia, Baxter listed tennis as his hobby. In fact he stopped playing tennis before he became Vice-Chancellor. His main hobby was gardening; he spent his weekends, and after his retirement much of his time, in the garden. He was a keen orchid-grower. He had another hobby: model trains. Beginning in 1952, he built an extensive set of railways, ostensibly to entertain his children and later his grandchildren; in fact, he enjoyed his trains himself. The tracks occupied a whole room in his house; there were all types of engines, bridges, tunnels etc., all of great technological sophistication. What he enjoyed most was not so much running the trains but constructing the tracks and the electronic controls. He was Patron of the Model Engineering Society of New South Wales. Baxter was also a keen carpenter and handyman; he liked making things with his own hands.
Other relaxations were playing chess, reading – particularly books on history and detective stories, listening to music – he had a good collection of records, attending concerts, opera and the theatre. His taste was conservative. He would not attend a performance of 'My Fair Lady' because he did not want to see Shaw's great play in an adulterated form.
While his health was good, he kept active. He was a Rotarian and he gave many talks, particularly on atomic energy. He was President of the Benevolent Society, Australia's oldest charitable institution, and he put new life into it. He was a Director of A.W.A. However, his health declined, and in 1983 he was found to suffer from Parkinson's disease, with its inevitable debilitating effects. When he started having difficulties in walking, he no longer left the house; he did not want to be seen hobbling about. During the last year of his life he was bedridden. Then Lady Baxter, his beloved Lilian, died suddenly, after a short illness, of heart failure on 27 July 1989. Baxter then said that he no longer wanted to live. As in so many anther instances during his life, things happened just as he wanted them to happen. He died five weeks later, on 5 September 1989.
Baxter was a very private person. Those who only met him officially never learnt to know him. The writer of this memoir was surprised to find now many people asked him: What was Baxter really like? The few who worked closely with him and knew him well described him as rather shy, modest, kind, emotional, caring, compassionate, anguishing over decisions about staff and students who were 'problems'. To most people this description is puzzling; they only knew him as an efficient administrator: tough, determined, crafty, even Machiavellian.
Baxter did not aspire to fame. He was not seeking personal publicity: the paragraph he submitted for publication in Who's Who in Australia is remarkably short for a man of his standing. He did not amass a fortune; he did not gather a collection of valuable objects; he did not join a club; he did not move into a more modern home or a more fashionable suburb. He had no social ambitions. What he ardently wanted to do was to build up, enlarge and improve the organizations for which he was responsible.
This memoir was originally published in Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol.8, no.3, 1991. It was written by S.J. Angyal, Emeritus Professor, School of Chemistry, University of New South Wales.
The main sources of information for this memoir were footnote references 1, 5, 6 and 14. I am grateful to the National Library of Australia for permission to use unpublished material contained in ref. 1. I acknowledge gratefully the help and information given by Dr and Mrs B.R. Craven (family background), L.W. Weichhardt, Professor H.R.C. Pratt and Dr Charles Suckling FRS (ICI), Professor F.W. Ayscough, Professor F. Reuter, C.L. Samways and Professor A.H. Willis (University of NSW), K.F. Alder, Professor L. E. Smythe and Professor C .N. Watson-Munro (AAEC) and Sir Asher Joel (Opera House Trust). I am also indebted to Sir Rupert Myers and Valerie Craven who read the entire manuscript and offered their comments, and to the archivist of the University of New South Wales, L.T. Dillon, for his help in locating source materials.
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