Laurie Draper interview

From country boy to science pioneer

Thursday, February 7, 2019
Dr Laurie Draper reflects on his Avondale experience

Dr Lachlan Rogers interviewed his grandfather as part of the 65 Years of Science at Avondale Reunion celebrations. These are the questions he asked and the answers he received.

To please both your high school science teacher and your family, you applied for and received offers from The University of Sydney and from the Australasian Missionary College. How did you decide between the two?
I knew it would be a crucial decision. Not just a choice between study programs but a spiritual crossroads for a 16-year-old country boy. After much prayer, I committed to accept whichever offer came first. I kept close watch on the mailbox. The letter from Avondale came first with the Sydney offer coming in the very next mail. With trepidation, I signed the letter rejecting the scholarship and committed myself to the uncertainty of the Avondale alternative.

You and Ken Thomson joined Eric Magnusson as the first three to study science at Avondale. What were your first impressions of Eric?
I remember hearing Eric, in a group of students discussing their ambitions, say, “I want to put Avondale on the academic map.” At a time when Avondale was an academic backwater, the statement seemed outrageous.

Avondale offered its Bachelor of Science through London University. The academic rules were tough. Did you all pass?
Our results were not announced until five months after the exams and came only a few days before graduation. To our relief, Ken and I passed at the first attempt—Eric passed with first-class honours a year earlier. As far as we know, Ken’s appointment to Moonah and mine to Newcastle made us the first science teachers in the Australian Seventh-day Adventist school system with a university degree in their speciality.

You returned to Avondale five years later. How did that happen?
Avondale made no attempt to keep the Bachelor of Science going after the initial 1950 intake but did have plans to offer, with lectures and laboratory sessions, a Diploma of Science. This would be synchronised with the Bachelor of Science syllabus so students could also sit the London exams. Asked to be part of this drawn-out effort to gain external academic recognition, I returned in 1960. Eric, now with two PhDs in chemistry, returned from prestigious overseas appointments the next year to head the new Science Department. In 1963, I sought leave to begin my PhD in physics at the University of New South Wales. Ken returned in 1964 and began the same degree at The University of Newcastle. By 1974, Eric, myself and Ken were Principal, Academic Dean and Head of Science.

Eric died in 2009. What can you tell us about him and his vision for Avondale?
I felt embarrassed being Eric’s classmate. He out-performed Ken and me by several orders of magnitude. We found study a constant grind; it seemed he excelled simply by looking over his books the night before the exam. Eric’s academic prowess and network of contacts led to attractive offers for advancement, but he remained true to his teenage commitment. Eric remained friends with these contacts, who moved gradually into influential positions in Australian tertiary education. As Principal, Eric built a highly-qualified teaching faculty. With advice and help from his contacts, Avondale received the National Certificate of Registration status for many of its courses. After almost 20 years of comparative obscurity, and following retirement, Eric was given the unexpected honour of being received into the Research School of Chemistry at Australian National University. This was, and is, almost unheard of. It’s probably true to say you can trace much of Avondale’s academic recognition to Eric.

How did you deal with issues at the interface of science and Adventism?
Eric’s return, the first significant Adventist scientist to be appointed as an Avondale faculty member, set him up to be the champion to defend the church’s position. He thereby faced a fearful dilemma: loyalty to current Adventist Bible understanding or a commitment to intellectual honesty. We had many discussions about how to honourably handle the divided opinion. Eric always conducted himself with dignity and grace even on occasions when he was being harshly challenged by people who knew vastly less than he did.



Lachlan Rogers

Lachlan is an alumnus (2005) of Avondale College of Higher Education and a former Associate Lecturer in the Discipline of Science and Mathematics.

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