Noel Murray

noel murray

Full Name: Noel William Murray

Original Appointment at Monash: Senior Lecturer in Engineering

Date of Application: 8 July, 1960

Date of Commencement: February 1961

Date of Retirement: December 1993

Noel William Murray grew up on a farm in Yundi, just south of Adelaide in South Australia. Thanks to his boyhood chore of milking seven cows twice each day, Murray realised very early on that farm life was not for him. And so, he set his sites on a different life. Initially, he dreamed of joining the Navy, followed by studying Medicine at the University of Adelaide. However, advice from his father changed the course of Murray’s career. Noel Murray’s father advised him to study Engineering at the University of Adelaide. So, after two years at Adelaide High School, Noel Murray enrolled in a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Adelaide.

Immediately after he completed his studies, Murray left for Far North Queensland where he had secured employment overseeing two percussion drilling rigs that were being used to investigate the underground water resource potential in the Herbert River Basin.

A few years into his working life, Murray felt the pull of further research. He returned to university and began working on a research project in the field of photo-elasticity. Murray’s return to the University of Adelaide was fortuitous. For it was while there, towards the end of 1952, that he first came into contact with Louis Matheson, who would become his PhD supervisor, and then, some years later the first Vice-Chancellor of Monash University. Just after Murray returned to Adelaide, Matheson, who was located at the University of Manchester, was looking for an Assistant Lecturer. His enquiry found its way to the University of Adelaide and to Murray, who promptly applied.

Within months Murray had been appointed to the position and relocated to the United Kingdom. As well as lecturing, he continued his research under the tutelage of Matheson. By 1955 his PhD was complete and he left academia to spend the next five years working in the field of stresses.

It was some time in 1960 that Murray heard rustlings of the new university in Melbourne and the search for lecturing staff. The advertisement for a senior lectureship in Engineering caught his eye. But, Murray was uncertain. Should he apply for this position at a new university halfway across the world, or should he stay in his current employment and pursue the opportunities for advancement there?

He wrote to his colleague Ken Hunt, who had already been appointed Dean of Engineering at Monash, to ask his advice. Hunt urged him to apply, arguing that Murray was at the stage of his career when he ‘must either decide to come back to Australia fairly soon or settle down in England, possibly permanently. .Hunt added that the opportunities for career advancement at Monash were strong and that the future for him at Monash would be bright. Murray heeded the advice and applied.

murray telegram
Scan of cable accepting offer

Murray was appointed Senior Lecturer, Civil Engineering in July 1960. His starting salary was to be £2,680. Murray, his wife (who was expecting their second child) and their young infant prepared to relocate to Australia. 

All of the arrangements for the young Murray family’s relocation to Australia were made by letter and cable: house rented, furniture organised and arrival date agreed upon. At one stage, in a letter to Murray, Matheson advised his former PhD student:

Bring as much furniture as you can because it is more expensive here than in England. This applies to almost everything except petrol, tobacco, drink and Income Tax, so if you need a new suit it might be an idea to get that too before you sail.           

Noel Murray and his family arrived on 6 March 1961 on the Neptunia which had sailed from Kent a month earlier. Matheson met Murray and his family upon arrival and their new life in Melbourne commenced. Handwritten letter from Murray to Matheson written on Neptunia letterhead.

As Ken Hunt had promised in his letter to Murray back in 1960, the opportunities for career advancement were indeed promising at the new university. In 1962 the position of Chair in the field of structures was advertised. Murray applied, but the appointment to the Chair was deferred until May 1964. When the position was reviewed, it was unanimously decided by the appointment committee that in the light of his achievements and leadership during the intervening years, Murray should be appointed to the Chair of Engineering in the field of Structures. 

murray press release
Press Release

With this appointment came his leadership of the Department of Civil Engineering, which came into being in 1964. Commenting on life and leadership at Monash in these early days, Murray reflected that ‘starting up a new university is like waking up and finding yourself flying an aircraft, never having undergone instruction’. But Murray clearly found his way rapidly, as he led the department almost continuously from 1964 to 1988 – a period of 21 years.

When Murray became Chair of the newly created Department of Civil Engineering, he headed a staff of six – four senior lecturers and two lecturers. Under his direction was also a relatively large number of undergraduate students – by 1964 almost a third of all Engineering students were specialising in Civil Engineering.

Murray began to focus the department into four areas of Civil Engineering: structures, geomechanics, water and transport. These sub-groups or sub-specialties, which continue to exist today, are a distinctive legacy of Murray’s leadership. They distinguished Civil Engineering at Monash from the discipline at other universities, which tended to focus specifically on either structural engineering or fluid mechanics.

Industry links and international collaborations were also of great importance to Murray. He brought about many international collaborations between the Department of Civil Engineering and various international academics via a scheme of inviting talented young academics from overseas, mostly Europe, to work within the department for a year.

In addition, during his career Murray himself travelled overseas to take up visiting fellowships and guest professorship positions. He spent three months as a guest professor at Munich University, was a visiting fellow at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok and spent three months as a guest professor at Essen University. Some years later, in 1988, the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Essen awarded Murray an honorary doctorate, to mark his contribution to the field of Engineering, particularly in the research and development of thin walled structures.

As the award of this honorary degree implies, Murray was a high profile researcher in his own right. His research interests included: stability of framework and bridge structures; analysis of large pressure vessels, pressure vessel heads, flanges, bellows units, reactor cores; thermal stresses in cylinders; mathematical theory of elasticity; crashworthy structures.

murray and westgate sculpture

The collapse of the West Gate Bridge in October 1970 altered the course of Murray’s research. Murray brought remains of the bridge back to Monash’s well-equipped laboratory for testing and research. As a result of his expertise in this area and the tests he carried out, Murray was appointed a part-time member of the Coroner’s Technical Committee on the West Gate Bridge Collapse, as well as a technical consultant to the West Gate Bridge Royal Commission and the West Gate Bridge Authority from 1970 to 1978.

Noel William Murray retired in December 1993, although he stayed on for two years after that to complete research on an existing ARC grant. In honour of his outstanding contribution to Monash University, the Faculty of Engineering and to the discipline in general, Monash University Council conferred on him the title Emeritus Professor in December 1993.

Noel Murray was Head of Civil Engineering and he was my supervisor in my final year. He was a very intelligent, if you can say 'typical' professor, very kind, very helpful, very understanding. Obviously very, very intelligent. – Clive Weeks

audio file  The Soul of Noel - poem written and narrated by Peter Darvall (audio)

(Updated Jun 9, 2011) Printed on: