The Faculty of Engineering established a course in chemical engineering in 1951, in response to the post-World War II needs of a thriving chemical industry. Initially, the course was conducted with the co-operation of the Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) who provided laboratory classes and some lectures. During this period, there was no university chemical engineering staff member and very limited resources.

In 1957 the course was one of the first in Australia to be recognised by the Institution of Chemical Engineers in London. In 1959 the first University staff position in chemical engineering was created, with Owen Potter taking up the position as Reader. However, by 1963 the course was in crisis with the resignations of both Drs Potter and Dr John Agnew. There was concern that the program would fold. A concerted campaign by both the student society (MUCESS) and parents of students to retain the course at the University of Melbourne ensued, rising to the level where the matter was raised in the House of Representatives within Federal Parliament.

The issue also featured in The Age and The Sun newspapers during October 1963. The tide began to turn in 1964 with the appointment of new teaching staff, including Dr David Wood, and with the appointment in 1965 of Professor Stanley Siemon, as the inaugural Chair. Work began on the Chemical Engineering building in 1967 and this building opened in 1969. The future of chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne was now secure.*

Since these early beginnings, the Department has grown into one of the strongest in Australia. Its research base has broadened significantly from the original coal and chemicals focus to embrace biochemical and biomedical engineering.

Four Masters of Engineering degrees (Chemical, Chemical with Business, Biochemical and Materials) are offered with over 250 students, as well as an undergraduate major within the Bachelor of Science. Our laboratories are housed across four locations including a substantially renovated main building, a second building devoted exclusively to research, two floors within the nearby Chemistry building and a presence within the Bio21 Institute.

*This text adapted from Turbulent Flow: The origins and Early Days of Chemical Engineering at the University of Melbourne, 1950–1970, by Joan L. Gravina.

Notable alumni

Notable alumni of the department include:

Professor Robin Batterham: former Chief Scientist of Australia and Chief Technologist for Rio Tinto Limited; currently Kernot Professor of Engineering at the University of Melbourne.

Alison Coutts: (first female graduate); currently Executive Chairman  of Nusep Holdings.

Dr Charles Day: (Rhodes Scholar); former Project Director, Carlton Connect Initiative, University of Melbourne; currently CEO of Innovation and Science Australia.

Professor Cameron Hepburn: (Rhodes Scholar); currently Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Andrew Michelmore: (Rhodes Scholar);  currently Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of MMG limited; previously Chief Executive Officer of Zinifex Limited; OZ Minerals Limited and WMC Resources Limited.

Doug Rathbone: Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director at Nufarm Limited 1999–2015;  Managing Director of Nufarm Australia 1982–1999.

Dr John Schubert: Chairman and Managing Director of Esso Australia 1988–93; Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia 2004–2010; currently Chairman of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and a Director of BHP Billiton.

Andrew Smith: currently Country Chair of Shell in Australia