Melbourne at the start of the 21st century is a large city embedded in a modern economy. It boasts a well-educated population in which significant numbers of people are technically competent, a wide range of scientific institutions and a comprehensive range of scientific support services. However, this position has been achieved only recently. Earlier on, science was generally - though with a steadily increasing number of exceptions - much more marginal to daily life.
When Melbourne was first settled in 1835, the locale was completely unexplored scientifically. Botanist Robert Brown had visited the region in 1802 with Matthew Flinders and in January 1804 with David Collins' party, but on neither occasion did he venture to the northern part of Port Phillip Bay. Following foundation most people were too busy establishing themselves to undertake systematic study of the area's natural history. The Mechanics Institute, founded in 1839, provided a focus for the few who took an interest in such things. The first published accounts resulted from brief visits by the Tasmanian botanist Ronald Gunn in 1836 and the missionary and naturalist James Backhouse in 1837. Regular meteorological recording began in 1840, following an instruction from Governor Gipps in Sydney, and land was set aside for a botanic garden in 1845 as a centre for the acclimatisation of introduced species. A gardener, John Arthur, was appointed early in the following year.
The gold rushes of the early 1850s led to a rapid rise in the level of scientific activity. Many of the new arrivals were well educated and quickly set about establishing cultural and scientific institutions similar to those to which they had been accustomed in Europe. Lieutenant-Governor C.J. La Trobe consistently promoted science as the key to long-term prosperity, and the wealth deriving from gold allowed him to make a series of new scientific appointments. Alfred Selwyn, recruited from the Geological Survey of Great Britain, led a new colonial geological survey to support the mining industry; Robert Ellery was appointed government astronomer, in charge of the Williamstown Observatory established at Point Gellibrand, Williamstown, to provide navigational services for the huge volume of shipping now using the Port of Melbourne; Ferdinand von Mueller was appointed government botanist, charged with surveying Victoria's botanical resources with a view to their exploitation, and Wilhelm Blandowski became government zoologist and began a survey of the colony's native fauna. In 1854 a museum incorporating the Geological Survey's mineralogical collection and Blandowski's zoological materials was established. At about the same time, the government ordered a supply of meteorological instruments and established a network of meteorological observing stations under the administration of Robert Brough Smyth. Later in the decade a geophysical station was established at Flagstaff Observatory, with Georg Neumayer as director. In 1859 Neumayer added the meteorological stations to his responsibilities when Smyth became secretary of the Board of Science and then, when this was abolished, of the Mines Department.
Under Selwyn's leadership, the Geological Survey produced a remarkable series of geological maps of Victoria's mineral districts. The work was, however, too arcane for many of the miners, who expected Selwyn merely to tell them where gold might be found. Having lost its political support, the survey was disbanded in 1869 and Selwyn left to become director of the Geological Survey of Canada.
Mueller undertook an extensive botanical survey of Victoria. The materials he collected formed the core of the vast herbarium he assembled in his Phytologic Museum - later renamed the National Herbarium of Victoria. Numbering some one million specimens by the time of Mueller's death in 1896, it had become, and remains today, the essential starting point for systematic study of the Australian flora. Blandowski likewise collected widely, but when he returned to Europe in 1859 he was not replaced. Ellery, in addition to providing a time service by which ships' masters could rate their chronometers, began systematically charting the southern sky; he also became director of the colony's trigonometrical survey when this began in 1856. In 1862 Neumayer's instruments were transferred to a new site in the Kings Domain, adjacent to the Botanic Garden, where in 1863 they were joined by Ellery's astronomical instruments from Williamstown to form the newly constituted Melbourne Observatory, with Ellery as director.
The gold-rush years also saw the foundation of the University of Melbourne, where science was well represented in the modernised 'liberal arts' curriculum. The course was intended to produce educated gentlemen, not trained scientists, but the small number of graduates in the first few decades would have had a significant exposure to scientific thinking. Two of the four founding professors were scientifically oriented: the professor of mathematics, W.P. Wilson, who also taught physics and astronomy, and the professor of natural science, Frederick McCoy, a palaeontologist who soon took on additional roles in Melbourne's scientific community as a consultant to the Geological Survey and as director of the museum. In 1856 McCoy succeeded in transferring the museum to the university, where it remained until his death in 1899. McCoy, Wilson and G.B. Halford, appointed professor of physiology and histology in 1862, when the university established Australia's first medical school, brought significant intellectual authority to Melbourne's nascent scientific community and joined with the government scientists to provide much of the leadership when the first significant scientific societies were formed.
The Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Victoria, founded almost simultaneously in mid-1854 with overlapping memberships, merged a year later to form the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. As the colony's pre-eminent scientific body, it was granted a royal warrant in 1860 to become the Royal Society of Victoria. The society's regular meetings provided a forum for the presentation and discussion of local scientific work, while its Transactions provided a vehicle for its publication. By entering into publication-exchange agreements with kindred societies around the world, the society built up an extensive collection of scientific journals, which became an important resource underpinning local research. While the society embraced all the sciences, other organisations catering for more narrowly defined interest groups, made viable by Melbourne's growing population, were founded. Some were based on the scientifically oriented professions - for example, the Medical Society of Victoria, the Pharmaceutical Society and the Horticultural Society - while others such as the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society, which became responsible for Melbourne Zoo, were more broadly based.
As the population increased, other institutions that supported science at a more popular level came and went. For a number of years the Industrial and Technological Museum, founded in 1870 with a collection based on objects brought together for the 1866-67 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition, offered courses of lectures on scientific subjects. A growing interest in natural history was catered for by the Microscopical Society of Victoria (founded in 1873 and amalgamated with the Royal Society a decade later), by a lively but likewise short-lived journal, the Southern Science Record (1880-85), and, more enduringly, by the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria, founded in 1880 and still active, and its popular journal, the Victorian Naturalist. The first years of the 20th century saw ornithologists linking with their fellows in the other States to form the Australasian Ornithologists' Union (now Birds Australia), while local observers were also catered for by the Bird Observers' Club (founded 1905). Astronomy was another field that attracted significant numbers of amateur observers, despite the cost involved in acquiring a good telescope. A local branch of the British Astronomical Association, founded in 1897, soon collapsed, but the Astronomical Society of Victoria, founded in 1922, proved more long-lasting and continues to provide a meeting ground for Melbourne's amateur astronomers.
The last two decades of the 19th century saw major developments in science at the university, with small departments replacing the earlier pattern of isolated professors providing courses of lectures in their respective subjects. New professors were appointed in anatomy, biology, chemistry, engineering and natural philosophy (physics), and new lecturing positions were created to support them. New degree courses were introduced in engineering and science as an alternative to the Bachelor of Arts, and in line with contemporary developments in science teaching in Europe and America, they included significant amounts of student laboratory work. Science professors were now expected to undertake research as well as to teach, and laboratory technicians were appointed to maintain the instruments and apparatus. The first research students appeared in the early 1890s, working towards the newly established Master of Science degree under the supervision of an outstanding triumvirate of new science professors imported from Great Britain: D.O. Masson (chemistry), W.B. Spencer (biology) and T.R. Lyle (natural philosophy). In the first years of the new century, two more new professors arrived, A.J. Ewart (botany) and J.W. Gregory (geology), the former also serving for two decades, part-time, as Government Botanist.
In part these developments flowed from the optimism of the land boom years. They also, however, reflected science's growing importance in the Victorian economy. The 1880s and 1890s saw the widespread introduction of new, science-based technologies, including industrial processes that required an understanding of chemical reactions, and telephone and electricity distribution networks, which created a demand for both engineers and technicians with a stronger background in physics than had previously been customary. By 1900 Melbourne boasted enough chemists to sustain a specialist society, the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria. Some of the larger manufacturing concerns established laboratories to control production standards. Mining and agriculture in country Victoria also became more dependent on city-based science, with alluvial gold exhausted and deep-lead quartz-rock mining the order of the day. The Department of Agriculture, created in 1872, helped to bring science to bear on problems confronting the rural sector. The department's laboratory, founded in 1873, later became the State Chemistry Laboratory.
The Geological Survey, dissolved in 1869, was revived with a much smaller staff in the mid-1870s, and its program of geological mapping has continued ever since. In time the survey developed an important role as a central repository of information about the geology of Victoria. The natural history museum, long known as the National Museum of Victoria, came to fill a similar role in relation to the State's natural history (other than its flora, which was the prerogative of the government botanist and the National Herbarium). The museum, through its exhibits, also contributed to public scientific education, as did the Industrial and Technological Museum.
During these years, science also became better established in other parts of the education system. In the early years of the 20th century, nature study was included in the primary-school curriculum, while laboratory work became a feature of secondary as well as university science courses. Training courses for a wide range of technically oriented careers were offered at the Working Men's College (RMIT), founded in 1887, and later at other technical colleges. Advanced diplomas awarded by these institutions were long accepted as a qualification for admission to professional bodies such as the Institution of Engineers Australia (founded 1919), in lieu of a university degree.
By the beginning of the new century the scientific standing of some of Melbourne's original scientific institutions was in decline. The zoo lost its scientific pretensions and by the early 1870s was a public amusement park. Similarly, the Botanic Gardens' research program became a focus of criticism in the 1870s and led in 1873 to the gardens being removed from Mueller's control. Under the new curator, William Guilfoyle, the gardens became a place of wondrous beauty, but bereft of scientific function. Mueller, struggling on as government botanist with a drastically reduced budget, was only able to maintain a worthwhile scientific program by committing his own funds to the work. He died in poverty, and in the years that followed his vast herbarium was barely maintained. Of his immediate successors as government botanist, only A.J. Ewart, secure in his university chair, pursued serious research. The observatory also fell on hard times during the 1890s depression. Encroaching city lights made serious astronomical work increasingly difficult, but appeals to transfer the observatory to a new site away from the city were ignored, and its remaining resources were largely committed to a long-running but dreary program of photographic mapping of the southern sky that was still not completed when the observatory was closed in 1944.
Following Federation, Melbourne's position as the temporary national capital led to its becoming the site of many of the new Commonwealth Government's scientific initiatives. The Defence Department's chemical laboratory, which oversaw its supplies of explosives, was established in 1906 and located at Victoria Barracks, a precursor of the Munitions Supply Laboratories established at Maribyrnong in 1921. Likewise, the Bureau of Meteorology established its headquarters in Melbourne, and the Melbourne Observatory became responsible for the national time service. When, during World War I, the Commonwealth set up the Advisory Council on Scientific and Industrial Research, this, too, was based in Melbourne, as was its successor, the Institute of Science and Industry, established in 1920. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, from 1949 the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation or CSIRO), which replaced the institute in 1926, set up laboratories in many parts of the country, but its headquarters were at Albert Street, East Melbourne, until moved to Canberra in the 1960s. The Postmaster General's Department's telecommunications laboratory, established in the 1920s, was also located in Melbourne, where it remains as Telstra's research laboratories. So, too, were the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, set up in 1916 to manufacture vaccines, sera and other bacteriological products, and the Commonwealth Radium Laboratory (now the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency), set up by the Department of Health in 1929 to provide radiological services for the nation's hospitals.
In the interwar period, these Commonwealth initiatives were at the forefront of scientific activity. The State Government's scientific agencies had mostly become confined to a service function, although the Research Farm at Werribee, established in 1912, maintained a broad program of agricultural research. At the university, science departments were constrained by heavy teaching loads and penny-pinching budgets that allowed few opportunities for research, and only the Department of Natural Philosophy under Professor T.H. Laby maintained a consistent record of research publication. However, two privately endowed medical research institutes were established during these years - the Walter and Eliza Hall and the Baker institutes - attached respectively to the Royal Melbourne and Alfred hospitals. While both remained small, the Hall Institute quickly established a first-rate reputation with the research of the second director, Charles Kellaway, on snake venoms and that of a talented young researcher, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, on viruses. I.W. Wark, employed by the Electrolytic Zinc Co. but based in the Chemistry Department at the university, revolutionised understanding of flotation methods for separating mineral ores, transforming the mining industry's ore-dressing practices and adding significantly to the national wealth.
World War II and its aftermath elevated the place of science in Australia's expanding economy. New and old industries responded to the disruption of supplies of imported goods, and to new and urgent demands from the armed services as they confronted the threat of Japanese invasion. Science was central to this transformation. Many manufacturers were unaccustomed to working to the level of precision required by the munitions industry; in response, a national system of metrological standards was imposed, and the Defence Department's laboratories at Maribyrnong became one of the nation's two reference centres for precision measurement. (The other was CSIR's newly established National Standards Laboratory, located in Sydney.) In many industries, scientists were called on to solve practical production problems, rather than to carry out systematic research. In others, however, systematic research provided an essential underpinning. For example, University of Melbourne scientists led a national project that succeeded in establishing a local industry capable of manufacturing high-quality optical instruments for military purposes, while research on antenna design by radio engineers employed by AWA, the company that maintained Australia's radio links with the outside world, led to significant improvements in the performance of the antenna systems located at Rockbank on Melbourne's outskirts. CSIR established several new divisions to support manufacturing industry, two of the largest of which, the divisions of Industrial Chemistry and Aeronautics, were located at Fishermans Bend. In 1944 the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Royal Park began large-scale production of penicillin.
Although the Division of Aeronautics was transferred to the Defence Department in 1949, CSIRO's Division of Industrial Chemistry continued to expand, until in 1958 it was divided into no fewer than six separate divisions, all of them located in Melbourne. The Lubricants and Bearings Section, established at the university at the outbreak of war, became the Division of Tribophysics. New divisions of Atmospheric Physics, Building Research and Wool Research were established at Aspendale, Highett and Geelong respectively, and several smaller units were scattered around the city. Much of the organisation's work continued to be directed towards the needs of farmers, but research in support of manufacturing industry also continued to expand. In some cases, entirely new industries were spawned - for example, a significant scientific-instrument industry grew out of developments in the Division of Industrial Chemistry, especially the invention by Alan Walsh (1916-98) of the atomic absorption spectrometer. More generally, CSIRO was no longer confined to applied research, but was allowed to pursue something closer to a fifty-fifty mix of applied and pure research.
During the war, the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology became, in effect, an arm of the Royal Australian Air Force. Reconstituted as a civilian operation after the war, with its headquarters still in Melbourne, it gradually became less preoccupied with climatology and weather-forecasting and increasingly oriented towards research. In 1965 Melbourne was designated one of three World Meteorological Centres (the others being in Moscow and Washington). The Defence Department's laboratories at Maribyrnong, previously servicing the munitions industries, also became more oriented towards research. Many manufacturing concerns upgraded or established laboratories during these years. Most were largely confined to monitoring and controlling product standards, but a few such as the ICIANZ laboratories at Ascot Vale, where the development of new crop-protection compounds became a particular strength, had a genuine research function.
At the university, scientific research remained in the doldrums in the early postwar period, but the number of postgraduate students gradually increased following the introduction of the PhD degree in 1948. In 1957 the federal government agreed to inject large sums of money on a continuing basis into the Australian university system, enabling the University of Melbourne to engage additional staff and commence a major building program, and funding the creation of additional universities. Monash University, which opened in 1960, included schools of science, engineering and medicine, while La Trobe University, established at Bundoora in 1964, also developed several strong science departments. A further federal government initiative saw the introduction in the mid-1960s of direct federal grants for university-based research projects through the newly formed Australian Research Grants Committee (later the Australian Research Council). Almost overnight Melbourne's universities were transformed from undergraduate colleges with professional schools attached into institutions with a major commitment to research.
Assisted by funding from the federal government through the National Health and Medical Research Council, medical research institutes also grew rapidly in the postwar period. The Hall Institute became one of the world's leading centres for research in virology and later in immunology, culminating in Burnet's sharing the Nobel Prize in 1960 for the discovery of acquired immunological tolerance. At the Baker Institute the focus was on cardiovascular research, while the Howard Florey Institute, opened in the grounds of the University of Melbourne in 1963, concentrated on body-fluid physiology. From the 1960s the Melbourne and Monash medical schools, in association with the major teaching hospitals, also developed a strong research orientation, with an emphasis on clinical research. The 'Parkville strip' emerged as a major concentration of biomedical research institutes, with the Hall, Florey and later Ludwig institutes and the medical schools of the Royal Melbourne, Royal Women's and Royal Children's hospitals being joined by CSIRO laboratories of Animal Health and Protein Chemistry, the biomedical departments at the University of Melbourne, the Victorian College of Pharmacy, the Royal Dental Hospital, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and the State Government's long-standing Veterinary Research Institute. With the establishment of Monash University, the relocation of a number of CSIRO divisions to an adjacent site and the erection of new Post Office (Telecom) research laboratories nearby, Clayton became a second focal point.
The Victorian Government also strengthened its commitment to science in this period. The Department of Agriculture established a number of specialised research institutes in and around Melbourne, in addition to 17 new agricultural research stations throughout Victoria, several of which did not survive the general cutback in government services in the 1990s. The National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens, reconstituted under an independent board in the late 1980s, developed new scientific vigour, with a major commitment to botanical and ecological research. However, at Museum Victoria, formed in 1983 from a merger of the old natural history and technological museums, the emphasis has been on school-level educational exhibits, while traditional scientific functions and the research to support them have been systematically devalued.
The mid-1960s saw the beginning of federal government funding for the higher technical college system. In Melbourne, at institutions such as RMIT and Swinburne, Caulfield and Footscray technical colleges, post-secondary diploma courses in a range of scientific and technical fields proliferated and deepened in content. Many were in time converted to degree courses. After a wave of mergers within the tertiary education sector in the late 1980s, these institutions became universities, with their lower-level diploma courses taken up by a reorganised TAFE sector. Melbourne thus found itself with three new universities. Traditionally, except in a few isolated departments, none of these institutions had had a strong research culture, but with their new status came new aspirations, which have in some cases been realised despite a serious decline in university funding.
These developments led to a rapid growth in the number of practising scientists in the Melbourne region, paralleling a similar growth in the nation as a whole. Previously, few scientific disciplines, except natural history, had the numbers to sustain specialist societies. The Victorian branches of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (founded as the Australian Chemical Institute in 1917, with its headquarters in Melbourne) and the Institution of Engineers Australia were the most important, while the Royal Society of Victoria still at least nominally catered for all the sciences. Since the 1960s, while the Royal Society has maintained its traditional function, specialist societies have proliferated, catering for a growing range of increasingly narrow scientific specialisations.
In retrospect, the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s were golden years for science in Melbourne. The growth that occurred depended almost entirely on funding from a single source: the federal government. Even though private industry in Australia achieved new levels of scientific and technical sophistication during these years, few companies (with some noteworthy exceptions) invested significantly in research, preferring to buy the results of research done elsewhere. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Australian government reduced its funding of both CSIRO and university research. Reductions in operating grants and increasing bureaucratisation within the universities have led to a reduction in the opportunities to pursue research. Directed to enter research partnerships with Australian industry, CSIRO moved its focus to research supporting mining and manufacturing. Taxation incentives for a time encouraged corporations to invest in research, but the reduction of these incentives in the 1990s had an immediate impact on industry-based research. Several major facilities, including the ICI laboratories at Ascot Vale, were closed altogether; others, such as the Comalco laboratories at Thomastown, where outstanding work had been done on the production and use of aluminium, suffered severe reductions. CSIRO continues, however, to maintain a dozen major divisions in the Melbourne region. Scientists from CSIRO and other government agencies also team with university and industry research groups in a number of cooperative research centres (CRCs) sponsored by the federal government, as well as in many other, less formal ways. A synchrotron adjacent to Monash University will offer major new research opportunities in a number of scientific fields.
Meanwhile the fruits of science have become omnipresent in everyday life, ranging from shrink-proof woollen garments, radar-controlled aircraft landing systems and the latest generation of pharmaceutical products to home computers, microwave cookers and television sets. Melburnians have become accustomed to enjoying the benefits of scientific discovery and invention, even as they worry about the risks associated with genetically modified crops and the mining and export of uranium. Australian science continues to enjoy a high standing internationally, and Melbourne's scientists still have the high expectations of themselves and their colleagues that became the norm in the 1960s. It remains to be seen, however, whether that standing and those expectations can survive the more wintry research environment that now prevails.