History of the School of Geography

A look at the long, winding journey of Geographic studies at the University of Melbourne.

The Geography Department at the University of Melbourne offered its first three-year degree course in 1960, more than 50 years ago. The fledgling department offered a pass degree in Arts, Science and Commerce, and an honours degree in Arts. Before 1960, single subjects in economic geography and physical geography were offered to students as a part of undergraduate studies, but 1960 saw the first cohort of Geography students, doing what we now call majors, at the University.

There had been discussion about the University needing a Geography program for a couple of decades before this. In 1943, then Vice Chancellor Sir John Dudley Gibbs Medley wrote a memorandum stating that in his view the Faculties of Arts, Science and Commerce needed to be strengthened so that the University wasn’t dominated by professional courses. He wanted to introduce ‘connecting’ subjects like Psychology and Geography – subjects that crossed borders between different parts of the University’s disciplines. Indeed such connecting subjects formed their own disciplines which were well-developed in universities elsewhere in Australia and overseas, but not at Melbourne (from Poynter and Rasmussen 1966 A Place Apart. The University of Melbourne: Decades of Challenge, MUP, p. 78).

By 1954, an Inter-Faculty Committee on Geography had formed, recommending that a department be established as soon as possible, to keep Melbourne up to date with international universities; all universities in the United Kingdom, except St Andrews, had a Chair of Geography, as did most universities in New Zealand, Canada and Australia, and universities in Ceylon, Singapore, Nigeria, Uganda, the Sudan, South Africa and the Gold Coast. The committee’s recommendation was also based on the growing need for qualified geography teachers in schools to meet the demands of secondary student interest. At this time, geography was the second most popular subject for matriculation and leaving certificate students, with only the compulsory English subject having higher enrollment numbers. There was pressure from Victorian schools and the university’s Education Faculty for a department that would be able to cater for the training of teachers to meet the needs of the public.

The department was a hive of activity in its first year. The founding Professor was John Andrews, whose correspondence was peppered with a litany of job requests from past students and colleagues, and logistical arrangements for academics moving to or visiting Melbourne. One topic of much discussion back and forth between Andrews and his newly appointed staff member Victor Prescott, was the pros and cons of bringing a car to Melbourne from Nigeria – apparently the state of the public transport system in Melbourne was the same in 1960, and the benefits of having a car outweighed the hassle of shipping! Andrews had been given a generous budget for salaries; the Council had approved the use of up to £8,300 for new appointments. In 1959 he had one senior lecturer, Arthur Wilcock, and one lecturer, Ian Coghill. Andrews had to enlist the help of lecturers from other areas of the university to cope with the heavy teaching load in 1960, which was pushed to its limits by third term. By the end of 1961, much to the relief of the original staff, there were two senior lecturers (Ross Cochrane had joined the staff), five lecturers (Coghill was joined by Ken Double, Victor Prescott, Robert Smith and Murray Wilson) and three full time demonstrators, as well as a number of part time demonstrators.

While still establishing themselves as a new department, the Geography staff participated fully in the academic community, hosting many international visitors in the first years. The department had three postgraduate students by 1961, and staff continued their own research, with staff members giving papers at the Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science from 1961. As well as this, the department hosted the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Institute of Australian Geographers in 1960; John Andrews was Vice-President of the organization. Andrews was also involved in the redevelopment of geography curriculum and assessment in schools, and was President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

In 1961, the Department moved in to the Redmond Barry Building, and grew from then. Through the 1980s and 90s, in the Faculty of Arts, it changed its Departmental name and its colleagues varied accordingly – it was the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies in the late 1980s; then in the 1990s “SAGES” – the School of Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Studies; and in the mid 2000s, very briefly, the School of Social and Environmental Enquiry. In 2008, Geography and Environmental Studies staff, a core unit bearing the disciplinary identification from the late 1980s, moved out of the Faculty of Arts and into what became the University’s first environmental Faculty – the Melbourne School of Land and Environment. Those staff helped form the Department of Resource Management and Geography, of today. Across the years, holders of the Chair in Geography, following Professor John Andrews as the founding Professor, have been Professor Harold Brookfield from 1979, Professor Michael Webber from 1985, and Professor Ruth Fincher from 2007.

Information for this article was collated from the archive boxes of the Geography Department papers 1955-1975, held at the University of Melbourne, Accession number A.1975.0132, and the history compiled by Katrina Hodgson and Ruth Fincher, Department of Resource Management and Geography.