As we wade through the sludge and stench of this our annus horribilis, it’s nice to see any sign of optimism or hopefulness. For me that came in the form of a simple tweet by Jane O’Dwyer, the vice president for global relations with the Australian National University.
She shared a 1948 picture of three of Australia’s most legendary scholars, Mark Oliphant, Keith Hancock and Howard Florey, standing on a hill, surveying the site for the soon-to-be-built university.
I’m not sure why I was so touched by this.
Maybe it was because the scene is so pregnant with hope.
Of course, there is no great university in that picture. Those men stand in the waving grass overlooking an empty site. It reminds me of that Michelangelo quote when he says he doesn’t see a marble block, he sees the sculpture within it. These great scholars don’t see virgin territory, they see a great center of learning and research.
And they weren’t young, wide-eyed entrepreneurs either. In 1948, Oliphant was 47, and Hancock and Florey were both 50.
They were giants in their respective fields, but they had all returned from flourishing academic careers overseas to build this new university out of that tree-filled valley.
Mark Oliphant had been the professor of physics at the University of Birmingham and a key contributor to the development of radar. He had worked on developing the fissile component of the nuclear bomb used on Hiroshima in 1945.
Keith Hancock, a Rhodes Scholar, was the professor of history at Oxford University. He would be later knighted for his services in writing the economic history of Britain’s war effort.
And the most famous of the three, Howard Florey, was the professor of pathology at Oxford and the creator of medicinal penicillin, for which he had won the Nobel Prize in 1945.
All proud Australians, the physicist, historian and pharmacologist had left the hallowed halls of British academia and trudged up that grassy hill to dream together of a brand new Australian university. It’s inspiring.
But in her tweet, Jane O’Dwyer reminded me that these men had done more than give up fruitful international careers to join the ANU. As she put it, “They had lived through WW1, Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and WW2, but dreamt of a better future.”
Today, we find ourselves bemoaning the “unprecedented” challenges we’re facing — a global pandemic, impending economic collapse, the rise of Russia and China, climate change, and widespread social upheaval about structural racism. It’s easy to become despondent.
But Oliphant, Hancock and Florey had been through just as tumultuous a period. As O’Dwyer reminds us, their generation had seen off a pandemic and a global economic disaster. And they had all been touched by a war that had taken an estimate 85 million lives and threatened to destroy European civilization.
For his part, Oliphant had been instrumental in the mad scramble to develop nuclear weapons before the Nazis and he contributed to what would become the Manhattan Project and the construction of the first atomic bomb. His research wold be used in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people. If anyone had reason for despair, it was Mark Oliphant. But he would spend the rest of his life devoted to humanitarian and political service.
During the London blitz, Keith Hancock was the leader of a Home Guard unit and a firewatcher at St Paul’s Cathedral, enduring the relentless bombing of the city and aiding in the protection and rescue of Londoners from the rubble.
Howard Florey spent the war in his laboratory. Despite the considerable difficulties of working in wartime Britain, Florey and his enterprising team were productive enough to carry out clinical trials of penicillin in 1941. The results were so dramatic that the drug was immediately used in the treatment of war casualties. Its effects were miraculous. Today, Florey’s discoveries are estimated to have saved over 200 million lives.
Given all they had gone through, to find them on that hill dreaming of a better future for Australia feels kind of miraculous in itself.
In the same vein, this week I heard a radio interview with a 100-year-old man named Bruce Robertson. Despite having lost his father early in life, living through the Depression, and flying with the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, Bruce’s optimistic spirit still burns brightly. He spoke so movingly of how fortunate he’s been, even though his 100th birthday party had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.
My own college, Morling, was founded in 1916, at the peak of the First World War and despite all the privation that meant for the founding churches.
I don’t know who it was who said, “Every generation makes the mistake of assuming it lives at the most important time in history,” but it’s a healthy corrective. No, previous generations have been through worse than we’re enduring. And those generations emerged with enough optimism to dream of a better future and enough energy to start building it.
As Jane O’Dwyer asked in her tweet, “What better future will we create for Australia post this pandemic?”