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Vale Sir Edward Woodward – a truly remarkable Australian

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Around 400 members of the University community, Melbourne legal fraternity and friends and family attended a commemoration celebrating the life of Sir Edward Woodward AC OBE QC, a former Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, who died on 15 April, aged 81 years. By Christina Buckridge.


Speaking at the commemoration were friends and former colleagues, the current Chancellor the Hon. Alex Chernov and Judge Gordon Spence, lifelong friend John Bayly, and children and grandchildren of Sir Edward, who talked about his life as a husband and father and grandfather as well as his many contributions to society.

For 11 years as Chancellor, Sir Edward was a significant part of the public face of the University – presenting testamurs to thousands of Melbourne graduates, at wide-ranging University and public events such as the 2000 Melbourne Walk for Reconciliation, or just cheering on the University cricket team. He fulfilled the role with dignity and pride, giving generously of his time and wisdom, winning the respect of both students and staff of the University.

His association with the University began more than 60 years ago as a student in Law, and included chairing a curriculum review in the Law Faculty, and serving two terms, totalling 18 years, as a member of the University of Melbourne Council and as its Chancellor. His contributions to our wider society were no less generous or significant.

Graduating from the University of Melbourne with Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws degrees, he went on to an illustrious legal career which saw him rise from barrister to Queen's Counsel to judge.

It was as a barrister that he played a pioneering role in the fight for Aboriginal land rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was leading counsel for the Yolngu people of Yirrkala, the plaintiffs in Australia's first major Aboriginal land rights case, Milirrpum v. Nabalco Pty Ltd.

“He effectively argued the case for native title without it yet being so called," recalls Marcia Langton, Professor of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, in an interview. "He ran a brilliant case – we’ve all referred to it since – only losing because Justice Blackburn relied on Terra Nullius to override it."

Professor Langton says that Sir Edward’s strong advocacy prompted then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to appoint him to the Royal Commission in 1973 where his recommendations formed the basis for groundbreaking Northern Territory land rights legislation.

During his career Edward Woodward sat on no less than 17 Royal Commissions and served as President of the Trade Practices Tribunal and as a Justice of the Federal Court of Australia. He was also Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

University Council colleagues recall the strong sense of collegiality which Sir Edward established during his term as Chancellor. His successor as Chancellor, Ms Fay Marles, was a member of the University Council at that time. She believes his work as Chancellor ensured that the University Council was the most open and least factionalised governing body on which she had served.

But Sir Edward will also be remembered as a passionate fan of the University of Melbourne cricket club. On many weekend afternoons he could be seen following the home games of the University team. And on a rise overlooking the Oval, a tree planted by Sir Edward and Lady Woodward serves as a continuing memory of his support.

After stepping down as Chancellor he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the University. Sir Edward’s characteristic response was that it seemed rather unfair ”that I should be rewarded for doing things which have given me so much pleasure over many years”.

In an interview for the Melbourne University Magazine in 2001, he assured the University that he would not cease to be interested its welfare. He was as good as his word. He and Lady Woodward found a symbolic way in which they could thank staff for all their kindness to them in his years as Chancellor by establishing the Woodward Medals to recognise outstanding contributions to research in the University.

Each year one Medal is awarded in Science and Technology and another in Humanities to staff members whose recently-published research is considered to have made the most significant contribution to knowledge in these fields.

In this way, Sir Edward Woodward’s generosity continues, contributing to his University in the years to come.

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