School of Mathematics and Statistics Alumni

Mathematics in the 1970s at the University of Melbourne

Colin J Thompson and Kerry A Landman
May 2016

The 1970s saw great changes in the Faculty of Science, particularly in Mathematics and Statistics that were separate departments at that time.

It was the beginning of the unitisation when term-length “units” replaced year-long subjects such as Pure I, II, III and Applied I, II, III in Mathematics. The content of these subjects were, by tradition, based on similar subjects in the UK especially Oxford and Cambridge. In fact it was not until the 1970s that a Professorial Chair appointment in Mathematics at Melbourne was made to a candidate who did not have a UK postgraduate degree. However, this was not unusual in Australia at the time. The University of Sydney for example did not make a tenured appointment in mathematics at any level to someone without a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge until 1972!

At the University of Melbourne in 1970 there were two unfilled Chairs in Mathematics with the titles “Applied Mathematics” and “Mathematics (Pure and Mixed)”. The Dean of the Faculty of Science at the time (David Caro) decreed that these Chairs should be filled following failures in the 1960s to appoint and retain suitable candidates for these positions. Thus in 1972 Simon Rosenblat (PhD University of Sydney) and Colin Thompson (PhD UNSW) arrived in Melbourne to take the respective Chairs in Applied Mathematics and Mathematics. At this time the incumbent Professor of Pure Mathematics (ER Love) was on study leave at Cambridge University. By appointment, he was also the permanent Head of Department.

The two new Professors set about updating and modernizing all (unit) subjects in both Pure and Applied Mathematics with input from all members of staff. With approval from Council they both became simply Professors of Mathematics and were successful in establishing a fourth Chair earmarked for candidates with expertise in some modern branch of Pure Mathematics. Chuck Miller (PhD University of Illinois) was appointed in 1976. E. R. (Russell) Love retained his “Pure” title until his retirement in 1977 when the position became another Chair in Mathematics, to which Leon Simon (PhD University of Adelaide) was appointed in 1978.

In the 1970s staff appointments (lecturer and above) in Mathematics were made with emphasis on research expertise as well as teaching ability. All academics were actively encouraged to apply for (ARC) research grants and many were successful. Also, for the first time, undergraduate students majoring in Mathematics were encouraged to continue on in the Department to PhD level. Kerry Landman and Paul Pearce (both now Professors in the Department) were in fact one of the first students in Mathematics to do so with BSc (Hons) in 1974/73 and PhD in 1978/1977 (respectively). Many others have followed in their footsteps.

Overseas professors regularly visited to present Honours subjects or short subjects (e.g. Don Cohen Caltech, Lou Howard, MIT). Paul Halmos (UCSB) gave a most polished memorable colloquium—he had completely filled the boards at the end of the lecture, with no erasing needed!

We all remember Shirley Flinn, who diligently guarded the office of the Head of Department. Staff always made a point of attending morning and afternoon tea, where our “tea-lady” Kath poured the tea and provided plates of tic-toc biscuits. Early in 1975 there was a cricket match at Royal Park and we always enjoyed the annual Christmas pig and beef fests held at Yarra Bend Park. The Department has photographs of these events.
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