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Story: Williams, Robert Martin (Robin)

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Williams, Robert Martin (Robin)


Mathematician, public servant, university administrator

This biography, written by Rebecca Priestley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

Robin Williams was an influential administrator who helped shape New Zealand’s late twentieth century public service. His ability as a mathematician earned him a place in the Manhattan Project in California, part of the team tasked with separating uranium-235 and uranium-238, a necessary precursor to creating a nuclear weapon. After the Second World War Williams returned to New Zealand to work at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Applied Mathematics Laboratory. He spent four years as a State Services Commissioner before serving as vice-chancellor at the University of Otago and then the Australian National University. He chaired the State Services Commission during the Muldoon era, and was closely involved with a variety of public service reviews and working parties during his busy retirement.

Early life and education

Robert Martin Williams – called Robin by his family and Bob by friends and colleagues – was born in Christchurch on 30 March 1919, the second child of Ethel Martin and her husband, Anglican vicar Henry (Harry) Williams, who had nine other children from an earlier marriage. Their relationship was based on affection but framed by the straitened circumstances resulting from raising many children on a cleric’s stipend.

Williams’ early years were spent in the vicarage at Opawa, a house with no sewerage, no electricity and no telephone, but there was a large garden to roam in, plenty of books to read, and a focus on education. Williams and his brother David were founding students of St Mark’s, an open-air school, which Harry established in a schoolroom next to the church. In 1930, the family moved into the central city as Harry had been appointed chaplain at Christchurch Hospital. Williams followed his father and brothers to Christ’s College where, as a vicar’s son, he was eligible for reduced fees. He excelled academically – his passions were mathematics and literature – but would later say that he loathed the school for its snobbery and excessive focus on sports.

After excelling in mathematics in his final exams, Williams attended Canterbury University College, where he completed an MA (first-class honours) in mathematics. He also took units in physics, Latin, chemistry, education and philosophy, the last of which was taught by the Austrian emigré Karl Popper, who gave Williams extra informal tutorials.

Radar and the Manhattan Project

In 1940 Williams was awarded a scholarship for overseas study, but this was deferred for the duration of the Second World War. Instead he was manpowered into the Radio Development Laboratory, a division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) responsible for a secret wartime programme to develop radar in New Zealand. The next three years were spent in both Wellington and Christchurch, the latter allowing his relationship with trainee nurse Mary Constance Thorpe to flourish. They had met through the Canterbury College Tramping Club, and shared a love of the South Island mountains. He became interested in politics, and in 1943 he worked on Labour Party leader Peter Fraser’s successful re-election campaign.

In 1944 the head of the DSIR, Ernest Marsden, arranged for Williams and another young scientist, George Page, to travel to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project, a secret wartime initiative to develop an atomic weapon that was led by the United States and supported by Canada and the United Kingdom. On 15 July 1944, before he set off for the United States, Robin Williams married Mary Thorpe in the Wellington City Mission chapel.

Williams worked as part of a small British team at University of California, Berkeley, to produce the uranium-235 needed for use in an atomic bomb. Although removed from the main weapon-production sites, this team made a major contribution to improving the performance of the electromagnetic plant designed to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238. At the end of the war, Williams and 12 British scientists at Berkeley wrote to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee calling for international control of the use of atomic energy. ‘The advent of this new weapon of destruction ought to be the signal for renewed efforts to achieve lasting world peace’.1

In 1946 Robin and Mary, who had by then joined him in the United States, moved to Cambridge, England, where Robin picked up his deferred scholarship and embarked on his postgraduate study at the university. Completing the requisite BA in mathematics, he turned to the PhD, for which his chosen subject was a famous conundrum in mathematical statistics, the Behrens–Fisher problem. The couple’s three children, Janet, Bridget and Anthony (Tony), were born during these four years in postwar England, and as the scholarship funding ran out Williams was able to support his young family with a part-salary from the DSIR.

Department of Scientific and Industrial Research

In 1949 the Williams family returned to Wellington, settling in Wadestown. At the DSIR Williams worked at the Applied Mathematics Laboratory (AML), initially under director Ian Dick. There he wrote research articles on statistical sampling methods and experimental design, and co-authored papers on a range of applications of statistical methods, including a number focused on rabbit control. Williams was promoted to director in 1953 and held this position for almost 10 years. In this role, he lobbied for the government to fund the purchase of a computer for the AML, finding himself in an argument with Treasury over which government agency would have New Zealand’s first computer.

State Services Commissioner

In 1963 Williams was appointed to the State Services Commission (SSC), the government agency which oversaw the administration of the public service. This concluded his time as a working mathematician, but marked the beginning of a distinguished career as an administrator. In his four years as a State Services Commissioner, Williams had responsibility for a number of government agencies: the DSIR, Agriculture, Works, Electricity, Civil Aviation, Transport, Marine, Valuation, Lands, Forestry, State Advances, Maori Affairs and the Public Trust. He was also responsible for public service organisation and management, which included staff training and computing; the AML eventually got its first computer – an Elliot 503.

University administration and committee work

In 1967 Williams moved into university administration, taking the position of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Otago. He oversaw a review of the struggling Otago Medical School which resolved its ongoing problems, restored the government’s confidence in it, and led to the establishment of a second clinical school in Christchurch. He made a series of influential appointments to the academic staff, and presided over a major building and development programme which made the campus predominantly traffic-free.

In 1967 Williams gained notoriety among students for attempting to enforce the university’s ban on mixed-sex flatting, an episode that inspired James K. Baxter’s satirical poem, ‘A small ode on mixed flatting’. Students held an overnight sit-in protest, one of the first of a wave of student protests of the late 1960s and 1970s. The students demanded a greater voice in the university’s management, and successfully campaigned for a liberalisation of its disciplinary regulations. Williams later conceded that the university’s policy on mixed flatting had been ‘totally unnecessary and superfluous.’2

Williams was a member of a variety of national committees during his Dunedin years. He was a founder member of the New Zealand Atomic Energy Committee, for which he chaired a subcommittee that investigated and reported on the personnel requirements for a nuclear power station. He was also involved with investigating the use of television in education and studying the relationship between universities and technical institutions. He was a member of the Metric Advisory Board and chaired its education sector committee. He also served on the Otago Hospital Board, Otago Polytechnic Council, and Dunedin Teachers’ College Council.

Williams moved to Canberra in 1973 to become Vice-Chancellor of Australian National University. There, once again, he presided over some major building projects and contended with a student body demanding a greater say in university management. In 1974, Williams was approached about a possible return to New Zealand, and he gladly concluded that he was a ‘nationalist with a small “n”’, a New Zealander.3 He took up the position of chair of the States Services Commission in 1975.

State Services Commission chair

The position was a high-profile and responsible one, overseeing the work of the whole public service. It was a period of financial strain and insecurity, with the oil crisis and a declining economic environment creating pressure to reduce costs across the public service. He presided over a wage freeze in 1976 and implemented an unpopular policy of limiting recruitment known as ‘sinking lid’ which remained in place until 1985. Despite this, under Williams’ leadership the SSC made many positive moves for women, including eliminating gender discrimination in vacancy advertisements, introducing ‘glide time’ (flexible working hours), and extending maternity leave provisions. He also initiated a review of the practices around the withholding of government information which culminated in the Official Information Act 1982. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, with whom Williams had a smooth working relationship, extended Williams’ term as chair.

Consultancy work and later life

Williams retired from the SSC in 1981, beginning his retirement with a six-month backpacking trip around Europe. On his return he was quickly drawn into a variety of new projects and commitments, including working party and review work related to health, education, and government superannuation. He was closely involved with the government heritage sector during the 1980s, reviewing the management of the National Art Gallery, Dominion Museum and National War Memorial, and chairing the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography’s policy committee during its foundational years from 1983 to 1990. He reviewed the Department of Internal Affairs’ Historical Publications Branch in 1986, recommending that its scope be broadened. He also reviewed government organisation in Western Samoa, chaired the Wellington City Mission from 1983 to 1985 and led the New Zealand Book Council’s unsuccessful effort to have books zero-rated for GST.

Like many public servants of his era, Williams was dismayed by the fourth Labour government’s dismantling of the unified public service he had worked so hard to improve. He argued that the previous appointment and promotion criteria should be retained, and for a strong ongoing role for the SSC. His final major public service project was a review of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in 1989.

During his retirement, Williams reflected on his role in the Manhattan Project in media interviews. Noting that the bombing of Hiroshima had cost fewer lives, Japanese and Allied, than would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland, he nevertheless considered that the dropping of a second bomb three days later on Nagasaki, killing a further 70,000 people, was ‘indefensible’.4

Robin Williams died in Wellington on 18 March 2013, aged 93.

  1. Quoted in Rebecca Priestley. Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the atomic age. Auckland, 2012, p.52. Back
  2. R. M. Williams. Interview by Dorothy Page, August 2008. Private collection. Back
  3. New Zealand Herald, 5 May 1971. Back
  4. R.M. Williams. Transcript of interview by Philip Rainer, part three, p.5. Private collection. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley. 'Williams, Robert Martin (Robin)', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6w5/williams-robert-martin-robin (accessed 20 July 2024)