Chemical Engineering Training in Victoria

During my final year of secondary school, I remember my headmaster Brian Hone advising the 6th form that “engineering was a very good choice for a well-rounded tertiary education” and being keen on chemistry I selected chemical engineering as my first choice. Living only 6 km from Monash University's Clayton campus made the choice of university a no brainer, although I knew nothing of the history of the chemical engineering courses offered at Monash, Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), nor the role that Monash's Professor Potter had played in chemical engineering in all three institutions.  

Any researcher into the history of chemical engineering education in Australia would be surprised to see how long it took for it to be recognised as an engineering discipline worthy of departmental status. Sydney Technical College in 1915 and the University of Queensland in 1916 offered the first courses in chemical engineering in Australia, but it was not until 1948 that Sydney University established a department of chemical engineering.  A factor that weakened the departmental case for chemical engineering in Victoria was the prospect of the formation of an Institute of technology in Melbourne, to which if established, chemical engineering would be transferred. A University of Technology (later the University of New South Wales) had already been established in Sydney in 1948. 

Former Monsanto Chief Engineer Paul Henderson, on appointment as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Melbourne University in 1949 proposed a new degree course in chemical engineering based on the three year science chemistry/engineering course at Melbourne Technical College (later RMIT), with the addition of a 4th year for the study of chemical engineering subjects.

This course began in 1951 initially comprising five students, two of whom, Ian Bock and Kim Partos, graduated in 1954. Ian went on to enjoy a successful career at Monsanto’s West Footscray plant, where he was my first supervisor.

The course was largely taught until 1959 by RMIT staff using RMIT laboratory facilities, however by the end of 1959, Owen Potter had been appointed to the newly created position of Reader in Chemical Engineering at Melbourne. Aged 34 he was young and enthusiastic, having been educated at the Universities of Queensland and London (MApSc, MSc, PhD, DSc) most recently with 5 years' experience as lecturer at the University of Manchester.

In addition to his role at Melbourne, Potter also accepted overall responsibility for chemical engineering studies in diploma courses at RMIT. Owen tackled revision of the undergraduate course, and scarcity of staff with vigour. In spite of resistance from Paul Henderson, Potter argued that his changes brought the course into line with Manchester and Imperial College, London. 

Owen Potter also participated in the formation of the Victorian Group of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). Following a meeting between Mr H. Fossett, IChemE member, visiting Australia, and interested chemical engineers, an interim committee under the chairmanship of Roland Andrews was formed. This 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 assuming the chair after Roland’s untimely death with Owen Potter as secretary.   

After more than three years waiting for the promised Chair of Chemical Engineering at Melbourne Potter applied for, and was offered, the Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering at Monash University, resigning from Melbourne in September 1963.

Shortly after that, young lecturer John Agnew who was undertaking his PhD under Potter’s supervision, also resigned and accepted a lectureship at Monash.

During 1964 both Potter and Agnew continued to deliver lectures at Melbourne University as well as their Monash duties, due to the difficulty in attracting staff.

At that time there were severe doubts about the viability of Melbourne's Chemical Engineering department due to insufficient resources and funding culminating in the local member Dr Jim Cairns raising questions in the federal parliament to the prime minister Robert Menzies.

In 1965 Stanley Robert Siemon a Queenslander, who was Chair of Chemical Engineering at the University of Canterbury New Zealand, accepted the Melbourne chair, with both universities delivering quality graduates by the mid 1960s.  

Potter remained professor at Monash for the next 26 years, until his retirement in 1990. His leadership was marked by his ability to make quick decisions and to craft a strongly-worded memo. He developed the department into a centre of chemical engineering excellence. He wouldn’t rest until he ensured his students had a thorough comprehension of a topic, and wouldn’t hold back when disappointed by their performance.

Championing intellectual rigour, Owen was one of Australia’s first teachers to embrace Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot’s Transport Phenomena, and used it to take students beyond conventional empiricism.


Turbulent Flow: The Origins and Early Days of Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne, 1950-1970, by Joan Lesley Gravina, Master of Arts University of Melbourne June, 2006 

Monash Engineering: Owen Edward Potter 1963-1990, Monash University ©2011 

Owen Edward Potter AM, 1925-2020, Article in The Chemical Engineer by Mark Latham, July 2020