Raymond Leslie MARTIN (1926 - 2020)

Vice-Chancellor (1977 - 1987)
Chair of Chemistry (1987- 1991)

Ray Martin

In true Melbourne style, Professor Ray Martin’s career as Monash University’s third Vice-Chancellor began over a cup of coffee. An innocuous note, inviting him to wet his whistle with a council member who had a proposition for him, marked the end of Monash’s long and frustrating search for a new Vice Chancellor.

Professor Martin guided Monash through a period when opportunities for growth were restricted.  His ten-year appointment, which began in 1977, coincided with a freeze in university funding. In a period of new austerity, he set about bridging the gap between the worlds of academia and industry, forging a path towards financial self-reliance.  To this end, he built new centres for innovative research and graduate teaching at the University.

Described as a “quiet, charming, approachable man,’’ he was renowned for being a scientist of high integrity, who was also capable of being resolute when the occasion required it. There were plenty of those moments in the decade that followed.

In 1984 when exuberance got out of hand in Farm Week – seven days of social activities, games and events – he banned it.  (It was reinstated several years later).

Professor Martin’s main goal, however, was to maximise the University’s scholarly and research reputation by building on the momentum established by his predecessors. To this end, he set about generating a spirit of enterprise and innovation with the firm belief that the future of Monash lay in the successful marriage of research with commercialisation. He established an infrastructure to ensure the best use of resources, expertly balancing the tension that exists between knowing when to take a creative leap, or when to exercise restraint.

One of his more memorable projects – and one of his last as Vice-Chancellor - was the birth of Montech Pty Ltd, a high-tech consulting company owned by the University with the aim of marketing research and ideas rich with commercial promise. He also opened up contacts with local industrial research laboratories such as BHP, Telecom and the CSIRO, all the time working hard to reassure sceptics, who were uncomfortable with the researcher-as-entrepreneur, with his trademark humour and good grace.

On his watch, some of the University’s most innovative research and graduate teaching centres were established, including the Centre for Early Human Development, the Centre for Human Bioethics, the Centre for Molecular Biology and Medicine and the Centre of Policy Studies.

By the mid-1980s Monash was reaping some successes from the commercialisation of its research. Monash IVF expanded into IVF Australia and opened a clinic in New York.  A deal was brokered between the University and Circadian Technologies Ltd over licensing rights to the hormone melatonin, which the physiologist Professor Roger Short had discovered might be of use in the treatment of jet lag.  Meanwhile a team from the Centre for Molecular Biology and Medicine managed to patent a blood test for detecting the early stages of bowel and stomach cancer.

Professor Martin also worked hard at forging links with the surrounding communities of Oakleigh, Waverley and Springvale through the use of the University’s buildings, such as the Robert Blackwood Hall, for local events.

He was also instrumental in bringing one of Monash’s most notable creative endeavours, the Banksias Project, to fruition. His interest was initially sparked sparked by a beautiful painting in his office by botanical artist Celia Rosser. She was in the process of creating a florilegium in the tradition of the 18th century, which contained an illustration of every species of the plant. When the first 25 paintings were ready to be put in a volume, Professor Martin, recognising the significance of the project, spent time in the UK searching for the right publisher, saying in an interview, “I had a great interest in the banksias, both for their sheer beauty and for the fact that it was an Australian project with a wonderfully gifted artist.”

Born in Melbourne in February, 1926, Raymond Leslie Martin was the son of illustrious physicist (Sir) Leslie Martin and his wife, Gladys Maude Elaine Bull. He enjoyed a happy childhood “building tree huts, playing cowboys and Indians” in the six-acre grounds of an old subdivided Victorian mansion in Riversdale Road, Camberwell. His mother was a pianist and he grew up with a soundtrack of her playing the classics.

Ray was educated at Scotch College and the North Sydney Boys’ High School for a year before returning home to enter the University of Melbourne where he was a double chemistry major, graduating in 1946. An MSc at Melbourne followed, before he headed to Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his father, where he was an Exhibition Scholar, completing his PhD in 1952.

While in the UK he met his future wife, Rena.  The couple returned to Australia in 1954 when Ray took up work as a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales. He briefly left academia for a spell at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) before being appointed Professor and Head of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Melbourne in 1962.  Ten years later he moved to the ANU as foundation Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, where he went on to become Dean of the Research School of Chemistry. And then he had that portentous cup of coffee.

Ray’s distinguished career was internationally recognised.  In 1968 he was awarded a Doctor of Science by Cambridge University for his contribution to the theory and practice of co-ordination chemistry and in 1978 he received a DSc from the ANU. He was the recipient of the Leighton Medal (1989), the Inorganic Chemistry Medal (1978), the Archibald Ollé Prize (1975) and the H G Smith Medal (1968).

When Ray stepped down from the role of Vice-Chancellor he continued until 1991 to work as a Professor of Chemistry at Monash and brought his talents to bear on the wider aspects of science policy by accepting an invitation to chair the Australian Science and Technology Council. He was also a member of the Science Council.

In 1987, the same year Ray relinquished the Vice-Chancellorship, he was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) for services to science and higher education, an honour which gave him “immense pleasure,” as did the news that he had been elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Other honours bestowed on him include an Honorary Doctor of Laws by Monash in 1992, the same year he was appointed Emeritus Professor, and an Honorary DSc from the University of Melbourne (1996).

Throughout his life, Ray was a keen tennis player, and was awarded a blue at Cambridge. It was a passion which stemmed from his early days watching his parents lob balls on the old asphalt court next to his house. Not only did it give him a lot of pleasure but as the host of regular Saturday tennis parties, he made valuable connections. For him, the game was a  “wonderful way to unwind from the trials and tribulations of a very challenging job.” He once described the demands of being Vice-Chancellor as “formidable,” likening it to being captain of a battleship.  At his side all the way through was his wife, Rena, a science graduate and biology teacher, with whom he had four children. Rena died in 2016.

In a life well lived, Professor Martin had only two regrets; that he never learned to play piano (his mother did try to teach him but he could never make time for it) and that he never learnt to fly. While at Monash, he used to watch the planes puttering over the Moorabbin airfield and think “Gosh that would be fun.”

Instead, he will be remembered as a man who managed to bridge the gap between the worlds of academia and industry by keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.

Raymond Martin died on February 25 2020.

Edited version of article published in The Insider, 27 February 2020.