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Greenwood, Gordon (1913–1986)

by W. Ross Johnston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Gordon Greenwood (1913-1986), historian, was born on 17 September 1913 at Terowie, South Australia, son of Rudolph Oertel Nadebaum, Congregational minister, and his wife Lizzie Ann, née Hales, both born in South Australia. About 1915 the family adopted Greenwood as its surname and moved to Sydney, where Gordon’s father taught at Knox Grammar School, Wahroonga, and his mother at nearby Abbotsleigh girls’ school. After attending Turramurra College and Knox, Gordon excelled at the University of Sydney (BA, 1935; MA, 1937, both with first-class honours in history and the university medal). (Sir) Stephen Roberts was a great influence. While completing his master’s thesis—pioneering work on early Australian-American relations—Greenwood undertook a research project on current affairs commissioned by the State government.

Awarded a Woolley travelling scholarship, Greenwood investigated Australian federalism at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Ph.D., 1939), supervised by Harold Laski. On 16 February 1939 at the Kensington Chapel, he married with Congregational forms Thora Jean Smeal. That year he took up a lecturing post at the New England University College, Armidale, New South Wales. His master’s and doctoral theses were published in revised form in 1944 and 1946. He moved to the University of Sydney as a lecturer in 1942 and was acting-professor in 1947-48.

Appointed (Sir Samuel) McCaughey professor of history at the University of Queensland in 1949, Greenwood threw himself into expanding the scope of his department, which, in 1952-65, also embraced political science. In 1949 Greenwood had three lecturers on his staff; in the mid-1970s he presided over twenty-five lecturers and twelve tutors. He emphasised good teaching, promoted new ideas and encouraged innovation in research topics: apart from political science he fostered work on contemporary international relations, Australian foreign policy and relations with Asia, Britain, the Commonwealth and the United States of America.

Greenwood’s published work, and that of his staff, increased substantially the status and reputation of the department. The synoptic general history Australia: A Social and Political History (1955), edited by Greenwood, was widely used as a text. He founded the Australian Journal of Politics and History in 1955 and edited it until 1982. With John Laverty he produced a history of Brisbane for its centenary in 1959. Greenwood’s broad interpretive approach was evident in The Modern World (1964). His interest in Australian foreign policy resulted in four volumes of Australia in World Affairs (1950 to 1970), co-edited with Norman Harper; Approaches to Asia: Australian Postwar Policies and Attitudes (1974); and Documents on Australian International Affairs 1901-1918 (1977), co-edited with Charles Grimshaw. He promoted international studies, especially through the Australian Institute of International Affairs, of which he was federal president in 1961-65. His articles in journals such as Australian Outlook, World Review and Pacific Affairs explored Australia’s role in the world. Internationally recognised, he represented Australia at Commonwealth and United Nations conferences, and won grants (including a Carnegie fellowship) for study in the USA.

Within the university Greenwood was an influential member of the senate in 1953-83. As chairman (1964-76) of the library committee he strove to strengthen the university’s research capacity by developing its library holdings. He also chaired the library sub-committee of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Advanced Education, helping to secure increased funding for libraries at colleges of advanced education. With Harrison Bryan he edited Design for Diversity: Library Services for Higher Education and Research in Australia (1977). In 1984 he received the (Sir) Redmond Barry award from the Library Association of Australia.

A member (1950) of the Social Science Research Council of Australia and then fellow (1971) of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Greenwood was also a member of the Australian Humanities Research Council (1956) and fellow (1969) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He served on the national committee of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (1960-74) and on the interim council (1967) of the University of Papua New Guinea.

Despite his critical and inquiring disposition, in the 1970s Greenwood had trouble reading the tenor of the time and did not adjust to the radical and democratising pressures sweeping through universities. Operating in the tradition of the god-professor, his liberal-conservative nature asking for rational discussion and gradual change, he was buffeted in the last years before standing down as head of department in 1978. Appointed CMG in 1982, he retired that year. The university bestowed on him an honorary D.Litt. (1983).

Greenwood enjoyed conviviality. Colleagues, friends, students and visitors remember him singing `Onward Christian Soldiers’—in the words of his daughter-in-law Jane Greenwood: `tone-deaf, but loving sound and feeling, conducting, cigarette in hand, the patriarch’. He was passionate about Rugby Union football and cricket. Survived by his wife and their daughter and three sons, he died on 4 November 1986 in South Brisbane and was cremated. In 1989 a building at the university was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Crook (ed), Questioning the Past (1972)
  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light & Learning (1985)
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 29, no 2, 1983
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1986-87, p 47
  • InCite, 6 Mar 1987, p 7
  • Words’Worth, July 1992, p 17
  • N. Meaney, interview with G. Greenwood (transcript, 1986, National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston, 'Greenwood, Gordon (1913–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/greenwood-gordon-12563/text22617, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 July 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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