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Walter Murdoch, born at Rosehearty, Scotland, was educated at Camberwell Grammar School, Scotch College and the University of Melbourne. After teaching at country and suburban schools he was appointed assistant lecturer in English at the University of Melbourne. Nettie Palmer was one of his students and became a lifelong friend. While lecturing Murdoch also contributed articles and regular columns to the Melbourne Argus. When he was not appointed Chair of English in 1911, he chose to work full-time on the literary staff of the Argus, and published The Australian Citizen: An Elementary Account of Civic Rights and Duties (1912), before becoming the founding professor of English at the University of Western Australia in 1913.
Murdoch enthusiastically created links between the university and the community with regular journalistic essays and radio talks. His academic work included collections of Australian verse and short stories, and a biography of Alfred Deakin, which he regarded as his one 'real' book. Murdoch's anthology selections and essays attracted criticism from other writers throughout his career, but his books continued to be well-known. Murdoch retired from teaching in 1939 and acted as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia during the 1940s.
Murdoch's essays and columns continued to appear in the Melbourne Herald and the Australian until the 1960s. Many of these essays were collected in book form, helping Murdoch to sustain his nation-wide audience.
Murdoch received many awards and honours, including a CBE in 1939 and an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Western Australia in 1948. He was knighted in 1964 and Western Australia's second university was named after him. Walter Murdoch died in 1970. He was the father of Catherine King and the grandfather of Francis King. With his son-in-law, Alec King, he edited an anthology of extracts from English and Australian novels and stories, Prose Passages (1934).