Spotlight on the collection: FW Robinson by William Hatherell

In 1986 the prominent Australian writer and UQ alumnus David Malouf was asked to speak at a dinner to celebrate 75 years of the teaching of English at the University of Queensland. While he might have chosen to speak about many aspects of his undergraduate experience in the early 1950s, Malouf's speech was almost exclusively about one man: Associate Professor Frederick Walter Robinson, or 'Doc Robbie'. Robinson had been appointed lecturer in English and German at the university in 1923, and rapidly became the main force behind the teaching of the relatively new discipline of English. Yet his interests went well beyond what we today think of as 'university English'. As Malouf puts it,

Robinson belonged to an older form of the university (that is) absolutely gone … he left no body of writing … and his lectures were so rambling that I can reproduce no single idea or principle that I derived from them. But he was trying in his often incomprehensible way to demonstrate something to us. We might gather all the strands that we inherit, from Europe, from literature, from Australia itself, from our own personal experience into a strongly felt totality of experience. What we heard was a mixture of Milton, Shelley, Brennan and the other Australian poets, war experiences from the trenches and the war hospitals of the home counties, from the university of Jena where Doc Robbie had written a thesis on slavery under the Romans, bora rings, corroborees … a demonstration of what culture really is … the holding together of all the strands of your experience in a single web. 

Robinson (1888-1971), founder of the Fryer Library, was a genuine renaissance man and a remarkably influential figure in Brisbane's cultural and intellectual life for several decades. In some ways Robinson's career was typical of the first generation of English academics in Australia - his academic training was primarily in classics rather than English literature and he saw himself as a teacher and public intellectual rather than as a specialised research academic. Yet in other ways, Robinson's unusual personal history - he had obtained a doctorate at a German university before the First World War and served as an army officer in both wars - and range of interests, as well as the personal qualities that impressed former students such as Malouf, set him apart from other academics of his time or since.

Portrait of Frederick Walter Robinson

William Hatherell, the recipient of the 2013 Fryer Library Award, spent much of the second half of 2013 examining the 34 boxes of Robinson's papers, and related materials, in the Fryer Library. In the first Friends event for 2014, William will speak about Robinson's many interests, activities, projects and personal networks - encompassing anthropology, geography, history, classics, university architecture and German culture as well as the English literary tradition and the first attempts at a systematic study of Australian literature and culture. Robinson was also a man with strong civic and religious commitments who took very seriously his roles in many spheres such as cultural societies, the university, the church and the army. Out of all this emerges a figure who eschewed academic careerism and specialisation, and indeed published little. Yet Robinson was in his own way remarkably ambitious - both in his broad notion of culture and the role of the university-based intellectual and in his capacity for what would now be called 'interdisciplinary' approaches to teaching and research.

William's presentation 'Doc Robbie' the many worlds of FW Robinson was held on Friday 21 March 2014. You can view the event photos on our Facebook page. Visit our Events page to find out about past and upcoming events.


Last updated:
5 January 2017