The Mildura Branch – Recollections of a family's experience

One of the first lecturers at the Mildura Branch was Professor Norman Olver, whose involvement formed part of a career spanning 40 years as a Senior Lecturer with the University of Melbourne.

Professor Norman Olver

It is little surprise, then, to learn that the Mildura Branch holds a special place in the hearts of Norman’s sons, twin brothers Professor Ian Olver AM (MBBS 1976, MD 1990) and Professor John Olver AM (MBBS 1977, MD 2000).

After spending the war years with the CSIRO conducting research into extracts that may have contained anti-malarial properties, Professor Norman Olver (BSc 1942, MSc 1943) signed on to the Chemistry Department at the Mildura Branch as a guidance assistant. He was to have a career as a senior lecturer in chemistry and later in chemical education.

An amateur photographer, he also helped with the production of Dust, the Mildura Branch magazine, and later incorporated many of his photographs in a book that he edited commemorating the short-lived regional campus.

Publication in March 1989 of The University of Melbourne Mildura  Branch 1947-1949 A Short History, coincided with the 40th anniversary of its closure. A first draft of the text had been written in 1950 by the Branch’s Warden, Dr J S Rogers MC, but had not progressed any further.

The comprehensive account of the three years of the Mildura Branch tells the story of a vibrant community that embraced sports, clubs, revues and study.

Ian Olver notes that he and his brother would not have existed without the Mildura Branch.

“That is where Dad met our mother, Rebie Reid, who, after serving in the Second World War as a nurse, including overseas in Borneo, returned to Australia and took the position as charge nurse of the sick bay at the Mildura Branch. They met there and subsequently married.”

THE BRANCH SICK BAY: Sister-in-charge, Rebie Reid, attends to a 1947 student patient in the eleven bed hospital.

Norman told many stories of his time in Mildura, marvelling at the simplified teaching implements used and the campus’s  natural environment.

“They both looked back on the experience fondly,” reflects Ian. “However, clearly from the pictures, it was by no means luxury.

“The Nissen huts, which subsequently became sheds on surrounding farms, were basic and the magazine was called Dust for good reason, because of the red Mallee dust storms that regularly swept through the area.

“In fact, when they installed a nature strip down one of the roads, a faculty member dismissed the effort with the comment, ‘It’s like giving a pig a serviette’.

“My parents took me to the site near the Mildura airport decades later. The water tower and the concrete foundation of the squash court remained, but most of the other buildings were long gone. It was a special moment to see the site, which held so many happy memories for my parents.”

Both Ian and John went on to study medicine at the University of Melbourne, strongly encouraged by their parents. Ian subsequently undertook an MD (when it was a post-graduate doctorate), graduating as Norman was ending his career at the University, the latter taking part in the academic procession at the August 1991 graduation ceremony.

Ian Olver has had a varied career, having trained in medical oncology and spending six years at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, followed by 15 years as Clinical Director of the Royal Adelaide Hospital Cancer Centre and Professor of Cancer Care at the University of Adelaide. He went on to head up the Cancer Council Australia in Sydney as its chief executive for nine years, and is now Professor of Translational Cancer Research and Director of the University of South Australia Cancer Research Institute. He also holds a PhD in Bioethics from Monash University.

John Olver’s main area of clinical and research interest in Rehabilitation Medicine is managing people with traumatic brain injury and stroke. He is currently Director of Rehabilitation with the Mental Health and Chronic Pain Clinical Institute at Epworth Hospital, in Melbourne, and Director of the Smorgon Chair of Rehabilitation Medicine at Monash University.