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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Butlin, Noel George (1921–1991)

by Maggie Shapley

This article was published online in 2014

Noel Butlin, 1990

Noel Butlin, 1990

ANU Archives, ANUA225-168

Noel George Butlin (1921-1991), economic historian, was born on 19 December 1921 at Singleton, New South Wales, youngest of six children of New South Wales-born parents Thomas Lyon Butlin, railway porter, and his wife Sara Mary, née Chantler. Thomas Butlin died in a road accident when Noel was five years old. His sixteen-year-old brother, Syd, became the head of the household and influenced Noel’s education and career. Noel attended Maitland Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (BEc, 1942), where he was awarded first-class honours and the university medal. Butlin was employed in the reconstruction division of the Department of Labour and National Service until December 1943 when he became assistant to F. L. McDougall, economic adviser to the Australian High Commissioner in London. He continued to work with McDougall at the Australian legation in Washington, DC, in preparation for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation conference in 1945.

Despite a large drop in salary, Butlin accepted an appointment as lecturer (1946-49) in economic history at the University of Sydney, where Syd was professor of economics. On 9 February 1946 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married a social worker, Lilias Joan Lindsay.  With a scholarship from the Australian National University (ANU) and a Rockefeller fellowship, in 1949 he went to Harvard University and began a comparative study of Canadian and Australian railway development. He became a senior research fellow in economics at the ANU (1951), and then reader in economic history (1954).

Butlin broadened his research scope to national accounts, publishing Australian Domestic Product, Investment and Foreign Borrowing, 1861-1938/39 (1962) and the innovative and influential Investment in Australian Economic Development, 1861-1900 (1964). For his research into private investment, he obtained the records of numerous Australian companies; these formed the core of the ANU Archives of Business and Labour (Noel Butlin Archives Centre from 1992).

In 1961 Butlin undertook research at the University of Cambridge and the following year became inaugural professor of economic history at the ANU. A period of study leave in 1967-68 at Yale University resulted in the publication of Ante-bellum Slavery: A Critique of a Debate (1971). With Pat Troy, he published The Cost of Collisions (1971) that dealt with the social and economic costs of road accidents, and may have been motivated by his father’s death.

In January 1974, he became director of the Botany Bay Project, a five-year environmental study sponsored by the academies of Science, the Humanities, and the Social Sciences. However, Butlin resigned in October because of difficulties dealing with the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments. The project wound up in 1975 but he continued to publish reports on Port Botany development, pollution control, and waste management until 1977.

Appointed professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University (1979-80), Butlin published a joint study with Alan Barnard and J. J. Pincus, Government and Capitalism: Private and Public Choice in Twentieth Century Australia (1982). In his controversial Our Original Aggression: Aboriginal Populations of Southeastern Australia 1788-1850 (1983), he estimated the population of Aborigines at the time of European settlement as three or four times higher than the generally accepted estimates.

Butlin was assessed as ‘one of the most outstanding Australian social scientists of his generation, and one of the major international figures in economic history’ (Snooks 1991, 78). A zealous and industrious researcher who combined meticulous attention to detail with imaginative sweep, he had an independence and tenacity of purpose that some colleagues found difficult to cope with, while recognising that his arguments were always based on primary-source evidence. He was fond of large cars and driving fast, and ignored departmental circulars by parking where he chose and bringing his dog to work. He also had practical skills, building a family holiday home on the New South Wales south coast. Although ‘a brilliant, innovative and imaginative lone scholar,’ he ‘founded no school of economic history,’ had few postgraduate students, and was sometimes ‘extremely dismissive’ of others’ research (Pincus, pers. comm.). His strong belief in the value of a mixed economy and an interaction between the private and public sectors influenced his work.

A fellow (1956) of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and a corresponding fellow (1976) of the British Academy, Butlin retired from the ANU in 1986, having been diagnosed with cancer several years before. Survived by his wife, daughter, and two sons, he died at the Royal Canberra Hospital on 2 April 1991 and was cremated. He had insisted on taking his computer to hospital with him and had continued to work on his two-volume economic history of Australia before the gold rushes, which was published posthumously. The day before his death he was appointed AC for service to education. The Economic Society of Australia awarded him their distinguished fellow award in 1990, and the Economic History Society of Australia and New Zealand sponsors an annual Noel Butlin lecture.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Noel Butlin Archives Centre. ANUA 19, 1433, Parts 1-3 & C, Butlin, NG, Economic History, 1951-1991
  • Howarth, Barry, and Ewan Maidment, eds. Light from the Tunnel: Collecting the Archives of Australian Business and Labour at the Australian National University. Canberra: Friends of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, 2004
  • Pincus, Jonathan J. Personal communication
  • Snooks, G. D. ‘“In the beginning is my end”: The Life and Work of Noel George Butlin, 1921-1991.’ Australian Economic History Review 31, no. 2 (1991): 3-27
  • Snooks, G. D. ‘Noel George Butlin.’ Australian Historical Association Bulletin, nos. 66-67 (March-June 1991): 78-79.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Maggie Shapley, 'Butlin, Noel George (1921–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 30 October 2020.

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