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Sir Robert Bowden Madgwick, educationist, was born on 10 May 1905 in North Sydney, second of three sons of native-born parents Richard Chalton Madgwick, an Anglican clergyman's son who became a tram driver, and his wife Annie Jane, née Elston. Robert attended Naremburn Public and North Sydney Boys' High schools. He entered the University of Sydney (B.Ec. Hons, 1927; M.Ec., 1932) on a Teachers' College scholarship, took some history subjects and shared the first university medal in economics with (Sir) Herman Black. While studying at Teachers' College, he partnered Black and (Sir) Ronald Walker in a successful debating team. Walker and Madgwick later wrote an economics textbook for schools, An Outline of Australian Economics (Sydney, 1931).
After teaching at Nowra (1927) and Parkes (1927-28) intermediate high schools, Madgwick was appointed (1929) temporary lecturer in the faculty of economics at the University of Sydney. He obtained a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1933 and enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford (D.Phil., 1936); his thesis was published as Immigration into Eastern Australia 1788-1851 (London, 1937, Sydney, 1969). He took up a lectureship in economic history at the University of Sydney in 1936, where he helped to found the Sydney University Lecturers' Association. From 1938 he was secretary of the University Extension Board. After World War II broke out, he was involved in planning an army education scheme (known as the Australian Army Education Service from October 1943). He had wanted to serve abroad with the Australian Imperial Force, but on 1 March 1941 was mobilized as temporary lieutenant colonel and sent to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, to head the new service. In July 1943 he was promoted temporary colonel and given the title of director of army education. Madgwick played a major part in establishing the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. He also sat (1943-46) on two inter-departmental committees which set out the future role of the Commonwealth government in education. Transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 19 April 1946, he worked (from October) as secretary of the interim council of the Australian National University. He continued to champion the cause of adult education, but his claims for a Commonwealth-funded national system were thwarted by lack of support from either the Federal government or the Opposition.
In February 1947 Madgwick accepted the wardenship of New England University College, Armidale, New South Wales. When the institution became the University of New England in 1954, he was appointed vice-chancellor. As chairman (1964-66) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, Madgwick successfully rebutted the conclusion of (Sir) Leslie Martin's committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia that the provision of 'distance education' was not a university function. Appointed O.B.E. in 1962, Madgwick was knighted in 1966, the year in which he retired. The Federal government sought his advice on grants to teachers' colleges in early 1967, and chose him to succeed (Sir) James Darling as chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, a post he took up on 1 July 1967. He chaired the Australian Frontier Commission in 1974-76.