The UNSW School of Civil & Environmental Engineering notes with sadness the recent passing of one of our founding academics - Emeritus Professor Desmond O’Connor.

Desmond was born and brought up in Douglas Park, just outside Sydney, - considered in those days as part of ‘the bush’, and attended Marist Brothers High School at Darlinghurst in Sydney.  His father was a survivor of Gallipoli, who met his mother, an Irish nurse, while recuperating in a London hospital.

‘They did it pretty tough, especially during the Depression, but I remember having a wonderful childhood although we didn’t have much money or any luxuries,’ Desmond recalled in a 2016 interview. ‘It was there during those early years that I developed my love of reading which has stayed with me all my life.’

The boy from the bush sought the outdoor profession of surveying, and as a licensed surveyor, came to the School in 1954 as lecturer.  He joined fellow surveyor Ollie Ward in teaching the surveying subjects that were part of the civil engineering curriculum, as well as courses for the Surveying Certificate, and the Land and Engineering Survey Draftsman’s Course.

With the addition of more staff in a growing and ambitious School, and the launching of its first surveying degree in 1957, Desmond specialised in photogrammetry.  He was considered by the students as one of their best teachers – being ‘very meticulous and dedicated.’ Indeed, although he left UNSW in 1963, almost fifty years later he was still being recalled by alumni involved in our 2010 History project, for his excellent and practical teaching, lively personality and dapper dress sense.

UNSW
Des O'Connor with Bill Kearsley 1962 Foundation Day pranks. Image SAGE Archives UNSW UNSW

1959 Alumnus Eric Lesleighter recalled students being sent out to George St by O’Connor with theodolite and levels in the busiest hours of the day. ‘One wonders whether the gradients of George St have ever been better documented.’ There was affectionate teasing over the bow ties.   As 1962 alumnus Professor Bill Kearsley recalled, ‘Des was famous for always wearing a bow tie, so on Foundation Day, 1962, we (4th years) presented him with one he could always be proud of!’


Des completed an ME at the School in 1960, (then the highest qualification the School offered), supervised by Alan J Carmichael.  His topic was ‘Improved methods of ground control for photogrammetric work in Australia, with particular reference to barometric altimetry.’

Desmond went on to have a brilliant career, first in the United States as Chief of the Environmental Sciences Office for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) based at the Pentagon before returning home to Australia in 1973 to become a founding professor at WA’s Murdoch University. As a key part of the new academy, Professor O’Connor was to establish the School of Environmental Science, which was an entirely new discipline in Australia.

Peter Newman was the first lecturer O’Connor employed at Murdoch. “It was a very exciting time,” Professor Newman said, “we had amazing students from incredible backgrounds who went on to become WA’s first environmental consultants.”

“We were starting to see the environment as vast interacting system, whose perimeters interacted with one another, and with people,” Professor O’Connor wrote, adding that this was what would “make environmental science different from all the other sciences.”

Through all this O’Connor never forgot his origins.  “Don’t forget the bush, don’t do everything in the city’ he would say,” Professor Newman recalled. The Remote Area Developments Group was established and continues to play a pivotal role in improving environmental health conditions in remote communities through the provision of water, sanitation and waste technology.

Along with his academic life, Desmond was a fully-qualified commercial pilot who spent many years flying over the Pilbara province inspecting mine sites for the large iron ore companies. ‘It was part of my job to ensure that the mining companies who consulted me were able to manage the habitat issues such as dust control when they sited their iron ore operations. It’s out there in that awe-inspiring wilderness that you gain a massive respect for the country.’

Desmond retired in 1988 but continued to serve his community in a variety of active roles. He was president of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation for the Relief of Suffering, Deputy Chairman of the Environmental Protection Authority, a member of Amnesty International, and served on various government boards connected with the environment.

He also took to writing beyond scientific and technical papers, including a memoir in 2015 The Boy from the Bush, and an outback adventure novella, Phantom Wings Over the North, that was based on his experiences of flying across the expanse of WA. He enjoyed the work of creative writing, and was sorry he hadn’t started earlier. In 2016, at the age of 90, when asked in an interview what else he did apart from writing, he responded, ‘When I am not writing I am reading history, I listen to a lot of music and read the occasional novel.  I do mathematical manipulations to keep my mind in trim.’

Desmond is survived by his children Liam and Caitriona, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Vale Desmond O’Connor. Thank you for your time with us. 

The founding brotherhood – School staff at Ultimo campus 1959. Des O’Connor is fifth from the left in the middle row, with bow tie. UNSW