The first Vice-Chancellor
English engineer Louis Matheson is approached by his old friend Robert Blackwood about the new vice-chancellorship of Monash University. He is intrigued at the idea of building a new university from the ground up.
Born in the Yorkshire textile town of Huddersfield in 1912, Louis studied engineering at Manchester University and worked as a civil engineer. He married Audrey Wood, and eventually won a lectureship in engineering at the University of Birmingham. His PhD on the theory of structures was completed over the next decade. Alongside his teaching and research, he contributed enthusiastically to the life of his university community, and began contributing to university governance. He impressed those around him. He was known as a ‘man culture and of the very highest character and ideals’, according to one Birmingham colleague.
During the Second World War, he stepped out of the university system to train army engineers. He commanded an anti-aircraft battery defending Birmingham’s industrial suburbs against German bombers. But following the armistice, Matheson was impatient to move upwards with his academic career. After just missing out on a chair in London, he applied for a post in civil engineering at the University of Melbourne. It was here, upon his arrival in Melbourne in February 1947, that Matheson first met Robert Blackwood, a new colleague in the engineering faculty. The two were both men of action and they shared broad interests in the humanities as well as engineering. They struck up a strong friendship, and when Matheson became dean of engineering at Melbourne, Blackwood was a close ally.
When Blackwood left Melbourne University in 1948, Matheson keenly felt the absence of his good friend. The engineering faculty was already feeling the burden of increased student numbers that would prompt the establishment of Monash University a decade later. Matheson had innovative plans for his faculty. He proposed that the technical faculties of Melbourne University merge with the Melbourne Technical College to form a single institute. However, while Vice-Chancellor Sir John Medley was supportive, other colleagues were more cautious about the plan.
Feeling disheartened, he reluctantly accepted an offer for the prestigious Beyer Chair of Engineering at Manchester University. Medley wrote to Matheson that he would be ‘greatly missed – not least by myself’.
But Matheson’s return to Manchester was not as happy as he expected. In 1959, when his old friend Robert Blackwood approached him about the new vice-chancellorship at Monash University, Matheson was intrigued. He liked the idea of building a new university from the ground up and agreed to return to Melbourne in 1960 to take up the post.
Over his career, he had begun to form ideas of a new kind of university that addressed the expanding needs of a technological society but also retained the humanity and the rigour of a traditional university. Monash became his opportunity to realise these earlier designs.
Photograph by: Terry Martin