The Australian National University (ANU) is unique among its contemporaries as the only Australian university established by an Act of Federal Parliament, in 1946.
Prime Minister Ben Chifley lays a foundation stone for The John Curtin School of Medical Research at the University. Photo: J. Lazern, Australian Official Photograph
The University was established to be of enduring significance in the post-war life of the nation – to support the development of national unity and identity, to improve Australia’s understanding of itself and its neighbours, and to contribute to economic development and social cohesion. Its mandate was to undertake “postgraduate research and study both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance”. This national mission gives ANU a distinctive relationship with the Australian Federal Government.
ANU was founded around four initial research institutes in physics, medicine, social sciences and Pacific studies and was the country’s only full-time research university. Since then there have been many progressive additions to the University’s range of activities, including a significant expansion in 1960 to take on undergraduate students.
A more detailed ANU history is available in the form of publications, online references and the ANU timeline.
From its inception, ANU was built around a group of Australian scholars who had already achieved international distinction, including Sir Mark Oliphant, a leader in radar development and nuclear physics; Sir Howard Florey, discoverer of penicillin; eminent historian, Sir Keith Hancock; and renowned economist, Herbert ‘Nugget’ Coombs. The first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Douglass Copland, described ANU as the “great intellectual adventure” and this spirit of discovery is reflected in the University’s motto, Naturam primum cognoscere rerum, “First to learn the nature of things”.
Continuing to build the University’s reputation as a centre of excellence in both teaching and research were a range of new academic leaders. Professor Manning Clark, renowned as the nation’s most respected and famous historian, was head of the History Department from 1960 to 1971. Professor Frank Fenner played a leading role in the eradication of smallpox and led the team that pioneered the use of myxamatosis in the control of rabbits. World-renowned mathematician, Professor Hanna Neumann inspired mathematicians, teachers and students in Australia, and became the University’s first female professor.
1945 Sir Howard Florey (later Lord Florey)
Medicine – (shared) for the discovery of penicillin. Lord Florey was an early academic adviser to ANU and Chancellor from 1965-1968.
1963 Professor John Eccles
Medicine – for his pioneering work on aspects of the mammalian central nervous system. Professor Eccles was founding Professor of Physiology at The John Curtin School of Medical Research.
1994 Professor John C Harsanyi
Economics – (shared) for pioneering work on game theory, providing a new tool for economic analysis. Professor Harsanyi taught economics at ANU from 1958 to 1961, completing some of his early research on game theory while at the University.
1996 Professor Rolf Zinkernagel and Professor Peter Doherty
Medicine – for revolutionary work in immunology. Professors Doherty and Zinkernagel first met and worked together at The John Curtin School of Medical Research.
The motto Naturam primum cognoscere rerum is from the poem De Rerum Natura (III, 1072) by Lucretius, Roman poet, philosopher and scientist. It is translated by Cyril Bailey (1946) as "First to learn the nature of things".
An alternative, following Rolfe Humphries 1968 translation of De Rerum Natura, would be "Above all to find out the way things are".