Chemical Engineering Education in Victoria

The Faculty of Engineering established a course in chemical engineering at Melbourne University in response to the post-World War II needs of a thriving chemical industry. From this course a department was later established but its progress was turbulent — and its survival sometimes uncertain — because it was conducted in a post-war university system swamped by large increases in student numbers, beset by a critical backlog of building works and starved of adequate funding.

In the early days of the profession, while people were very much engaged in chemical engineering, they had not received formal chemical engineering training. Clive Pratt, an eminent chemical engineer and long-term supporter of chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne, recalls that his undergraduate course in the United Kingdom was not in chemical engineering “because there were no chemical engineers when I first went to university, except in America. There were none in Britain, there were no courses.” This is true of many of the early staff of the Department, many of whom completed Applied Chemistry or other Science or Engineering degrees.

Research on Victorian brown coal had been initiated in the mid-1940s at the University of Melbourne by Professor Aubrey Burstall, the last occupant of the single Chair of Engineering.

Research on this subject continued in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and came under the direction of Professor Paul Henderson when he was appointed as Professor of Mechanical Engineering in 1949. Paul spoke to students undertaking a three-year Science Chemistry/Engineering course about the possibility of doing a new degree course in Chemical Engineering.

In 1951 Harrison Chapman planned a new chemical engineering course, based on the existing three-year Bachelor of Science Engineering course with a third-year subject, Introduction to Chemical Engineering, which he would teach. A fourth year comprising Chemical Engineering subjects would be added, with most subjects being taught by the Melbourne Technical College. The course began in 1951 initially comprising five students, two of whom Ian Bock and Kim Partos graduated in 1954. However, it was not until 1960 that the first member of staff in the field was appointed by the University, and a department officially created.

John Agnew in his article ‘Chemical Engineering Education’ remarked “What strikes one most in looking back is how long it took for the Australian universities to recognize chemical engineering as a major branch of engineering, worthy of separate departmental status.

Courses in Australia were commenced as far back as 1915 at the Sydney Technical College and 1916 at the University of Queensland (within the Faculty of Science). But it was not until 1948 that the first university department of chemical engineering was established at the University of Sydney, under Professor T.G. Hunter.”

Main entrance (Gate 10) to Parkville Campus of The University of Melbourne from Grattan Street (Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons; attributed to: Pollynolly)

Another factor that weakened the case for the establishment of a Department of Chemical Engineering was the prospect of the formation of an Institute or University of Technology in Victoria, to which, if it were established, chemical engineering would be transferred. From the early 1940s until 1956, such a technical university, which was to provide advanced technological training, or in Paul Henderson's words, 'to supply industry with highly trained personnel' seemed a very real prospect. A University of Technology (later the University of New South Wales) had already been established in Sydney in 1948 and, in 1950 a special committee appointed by the Victorian Minister for Education 'endorsed the proposal for a fusion of the University of Melbourne engineering school and Melbourne Technical College under an autonomous council with independent finance but affiliated with the University of Melbourne'. While the idea of a University of Technology was always present, its organisation was never clear and, as late as November 1955, Paul Henderson wrote an article entitled 'Should Victoria Have a Technical University?', in which he advocated the creation of a technical university but questioned what form it should take.

By the end of 1959, Owen Edward Potter had been appointed to the newly created position of Reader in Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne. He seemed the ideal person to lead the new Department of Chemical Engineering. At 34 years of age, he was young and enthusiastic. A Queenslander, he had been educated at the Universities of Queensland and London (MApSc, MSc, PhD, DSc). He came to Melbourne from the University of Manchester, where he had been a Lecturer in Chemical Engineering since 1954. Along with the University of Melbourne Readership, Owen Potter had also accepted 'overall responsibility for chemical engineering studies in Diploma courses at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (RMIT).’

Owen also tackled revision of the undergraduate course, and the problem of obtaining staff for the fledgling Department. In response to Owen Potter's proposed revision of the course, Paul Henderson, who was Dean at the time, called a meeting of the Chemical Engineering Standing Committee. Because of the effort he had put into setting up chemical engineering at the University, it seemed that Paul had developed a sense of ownership of the course and was rather reluctant to see changes introduced. Nevertheless, Owen explained to the Standing Committee that he wished to increase the amount of chemical engineering in the course so that it would be possible to teach this subject at honours level, thereby bringing the course more into line with courses at Manchester and Imperial College, London.

In addition to his activities at the University and RMIT, Owen Potter participated in the formation of the Victorian Group of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Arising out of an informal meeting between Mr H. Fossett, Member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, who was visiting Australia, and interested chemical engineers, an interim committee under the chair of Roland Andrews was formed to clarify the wishes of Victorian members of IChemE. The activities of the interim committee led to the formation of a Group of the Institution in Victoria on 5 October 1961. A committee of five was appointed with Clive Pratt as Chairman and Owen Potter as Secretary/Treasurer. Sadly, Roland Andrews died of hypertensive coronary disease on 14 October 1961. Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne had lost a great supporter, as had the Faculty of Engineering which, at its meeting of the 8 November, stood in silence in his memory.

In an email to David Wood in 2020 Mike Banfield mentions that he met Hugh (actually Hubert) Fossett several times in the mid 1960’s. At that time Mike worked for The Ralph M. Parsons Company who were in a Joint Venture with Power Gas. They were building a lead alkyl plant – not a popular subject nowadays - in Germany for a company related to Associated Octel. Hugh was acting as a consultant on the project and Mike understood he had played a major part in building the original Octel plant at Ellesmere Port in the early days of WW2 to provide anti-knock products for aircraft fuel. The knowhow came from Ethyl Corp in the U.S. Mike says that Hubert was a most interesting person and shared some of his experiences from before the War including travelling to South Africa by flying boat which took several days. Later in the 1960’s he published a book introducing Chemical Engineering to school students which Mike thinks is still available.

With so much pressure on him, the Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor Sir George Paton, shied away from a firm commitment to a Chair in Chemical Engineering and, in the well-established tradition of the University towards chemical engineering, asked Owen Potter to wait. After more than three years of waiting and with the possibility of a Chair at Monash, Owen finally applied for, and was offered, the Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering at Monash University. The Vice-Chancellor at Monash, Louis Matheson noted that ‘Dr Potter’s achievements in building up the teaching and research in his department, which was actually located in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, had convinced the university that he was extremely well suited for the important position of first Professor of Chemical Engineering.’ Owen resigned in September 1963 and his resignation was followed very shortly by that of John Agnew, who accepted a lectureship at Monash. As John said, “They offered me a job at Monash, and I gave it a lot of thought and I decided, well chemical engineering at Melbourne might fold up and I may not get another offer, so I’d better take it. So, I decided to go.” Monash University had now acquired two outstanding chemical engineers, but where did that leave chemical engineering at Melbourne? Would it, as John Agnew feared, fold up?

Potter remained Chair of the Department for the next 26 years, until his retirement in 1990. During that time, he also served as Associate Dean and Acting Dean of Engineering on several occasions. In 1964 he travelled to New Zealand to give a series of guest lectures at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. In 1974 he took study leave and spent time working in the CSIRO Division of Chemical Engineering.

In early 1979 Potter first contacted the State Electricity Commission (SEC) to fund research into a process he had been exploring for partially drying high moisture brown coal and other materials. Potter’s proposed method was different to the approach used by the SEC at the time and would potentially reduce the boiler size as well as the total cost of the/a power station. It could also potentially increase the power station’s thermal efficiency as it reduced fuel costs. However, much to the disappointment of Potter and his department, the SEC would not support/fund his research. As his process had yet to be tested on a larger scale, the SEC felt investment in his research would be too high risk.

Owen Potter was known for his passionate convictions and opinions – he was a strong and decisive leader. Advocacy was a critical aspect of his leadership. He frequently approached University leaders as well as members of parliament and government ministers at both state and federal level on matters of importance to him, his research, and his department.

Potter was known on an international level for his research and scholarship. In 1981 he went to the US to participate in an international symposium on synthetic fuels in New Jersey. In 1982, the Faculty of Engineering prepared a document to support Potter’s appointment to become a Research Professor. Included in this were the following remarks:

“Owen Potter is the pre-eminent chemical engineering scientist in Australia today. He has earned this reputation firstly by his exceptional contributions to the development of basic knowledge in the areas of fluidization, reaction engineering and drying; and secondly, by his clever application of fundamental principles to the development of significant new processing concepts. No other Australian chemical engineering academic has made such an impact on the world scene.”

A year later, in 1983, Potter was elected to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. In May of that year, Potter travelled overseas again, this time to China – a visit made possible by the Scientific Exchange Agreement between China and Australia.

Owen Potter retired at the end of 1990. Just before his retirement, the Department of Chemical Engineering held a one-day Chemical Engineering symposium in his honour. In 1991 he was given the title Emeritus Professor.