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Owen Potter

owen potter

Full Name: Owen Edward Potter

Original Appointment at Monash: Chair of Chemical Engineering

Date of Application: 1963

Date of Commencement: 1963

Date of Retirement: 1990

Owen Potter was born in Brisbane on 8 August 1925. In 1943 he won a state scholarship to the University of Queensland, where he studied applied science, majoring in chemical engineering. He graduated with first class honours in 1947. For the next two years he worked at the University of Queensland, the recipient of a research training scholarship from CSIRO. During this time Potter obtained his Masters in Applied Science. In 1949 he was awarded the Foundation Travelling Scholarship. Potter spent the next two years studying history and philosophy of science at University College London.

In 1951 he graduated with a Masters degree from London University. 1954 marked Potter’s return to engineering when he was offered a teaching post at Manchester University, teaching heat transfer, technical kinetics, nuclear chemical engineering and distillation and liquid extraction. While teaching at Manchester University Potter also obtained his PhD in Chemical Engineering.

In 1960 Owen Potter returned to Australia, to take up a post as Reader in Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne. At the time Potter joined the Faculty of Engineering there was no Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne, however he was assured that the Faculty supported its establishment in theory. Interestingly, when Potter arrived at the University he found that his portfolio also included the leadership of RMIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, which was at the time, under the auspices of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Engineering.

In 1963, Potter was invited to apply for the Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Monash University. At the time he applied Potter was married with five children under the age of eleven. The Monash University Council appointment committee were deliberating between four shortlisted candidates for the Chemical Engineering Chair. Potter came strongly recommended by his referees. His quick decision making ability as well as his tendency to write a ‘strongly worded memoranda’ were acknowledged. Finally the decision was made and Potter was offered the position. In September 1963 Potter accepted ‘with pleasure’. 

Potter remained Chair of the Department for the next 26 years, until his retirement in 1990. During that time he also served as Associate Dean and Acting Dean of Engineering on a number of occasions. In 1964 he travelled to New Zealand to give a series of guest lectures at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. In 1974 he took study leave and spent time working in the CSIRO Division of Chemical Engineering.

In early 1979 Potter first contacted the State Electricity Commission (SEC) to fund research into a process he had been exploring for partially drying high moisture brown coal and other materials. Potter’s proposed method was different to the approach used by the SEC at the time and would potentially reduce the boiler size as well as the total cost of the/a power station. It could also potentially increase the power station’s thermal efficiency as it reduced fuel costs. However, much to the disappointment of Potter and his department’s, the SEC would not support/fund his research. As his process had yet to be tested on a larger scale, the SEC felt investment in his research would be too high risk.

Owen Potter was known for his passionate convictions and opinions – he was a strong and decisive leader. Advocacy was a critical aspect of his leadership. He frequently approached University leaders as well as members of parliament and government ministers at both state and federal level on matters of importance to him, his research and his department.

Potter was known on an international level for his research and scholarship. In 1981 he went to the US to participate in an international symposium on synthetic fuels in New Jersey. In 1982, the Faculty of Engineering prepared a document to support Potter’s appointment to become a Research Professor. Included in this were the following remarks:

Owen Potter is the pre-eminent chemical engineering scientist in Australia today. He has earned this reputation firstly by his exceptional contributions to the development of basic knowledge in the areas of fluidization, reaction engineering and drying; and secondly, by his clever application of fundamental principles to the development of significant new processing concepts. No other Australian chemical engineering academic has made such an impact on the world scene.

A year later, in 1983, Potter was elected to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. In May of that year, Potter travelled overseas again, this time to China – a visit made possible by the Scientific Exchange Agreement between China and Australia.

Owen Potter retired at the end of 1990. Just before his retirement, the Department of Chemical Engineering held a one day Chemical Engineering symposium in his honour. In 1991 he was given the title Emeritus Professor.

audio file  A cinematic model - poem written and narrated by Peter Darvall (audio)

References:

  1. Monash University Archives, Owen Potter Staff File
  2. Monash University Archives, Owen Potter Interview
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