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O'Brien, Jack Lockyer (John) (1909–1965)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Jack Lockyer (John) O'Brien (1909-1965), historian, was born on 30 December 1909 at Adelong, New South Wales, second surviving child of Australian-born parents Richard Thomas Lockyer O'Brien, miner, and his wife Selina Rachel, née Crain. Influenced by his classics master John Gibbs at Sydney Boys' High School, 'John' O'Brien was awarded a scholarship to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1930) where he graduated with first-class honours and won the university medal in classics. He then proceeded to Emmanuel College, Cambridge (B.A., 1932).

In 1932 O'Brien returned to Australia and took up a tutorship at Trinity College, University of Melbourne. Two years later he was appointed a lecturer in the university's department of classics. A lapsed Catholic, he married Joyce Mary Hansen with Anglican rites on 12 December 1936 at Holy Trinity Church, Kew; they were to be divorced in 1956. Following the death of Jessie Webb, he transferred on 1 March 1945 to the department of history as a senior lecturer.

Realistic about teaching undergraduates who generally knew neither Greek nor Latin, O'Brien adopted a broad approach to ancient history and provided extensive translations for his students. His lectures were totally based on primary sources, linking—for example—Athenian tribute lists, other inscriptions, monuments and literary texts. He was a self-effacing and tolerant teacher who encouraged students to assess the reliability of all explanations. His advanced course on Roman Britain was celebrated for its critical examination of the sources, and the theories of R. G. Collingwood. Delivered in a precise, even style, his lectures formed a series, complete with footnotes. The need for concentration and diligent note-taking meant that they were popular only with a minority, yet his originality and humanity pervaded small classes.

O'Brien was a meticulous linguist with a penetrating grasp of the logic and nuances of a language. He completed translations which were models of lucidity, rendering a hieroglyphic text as fluently as one in medieval Latin. When Michael Ventris and John Chadwick claimed the decipherment of the Mycenaen Linear B script, he applied their principles to undeciphered texts published in Scripta Minoa; as they passed his test, he abandoned investigations without reporting his innovative successes. None of his basic research was published, probably because his combination of perfectionism and humility discounted his originality. His encouragement of student involvement in Australian archaeology, however, brought positive results.

Late in his career O'Brien developed an unorthodox and consuming interest that stamped him as an innovator in studies in Australian architectural and urban history. In the same spirit of inquiry with which he calculated the cost of building the Parthenon, he applied the principles of archaeological typology and the primacy of original texts to the study of suburban domestic housing. He concentrated on the housing stock of inner Melbourne, much of it then under threat of demolition by the Housing Commission of Victoria. With the solicitor Peter Balmford's collaboration, he used ratebooks, street directories, titles, sub-division notices, tenders and even sewerage connection data to identify the date, pattern of construction and occupation of complete streets. In 1957 O'Brien bought a bluestone house in Hanover Street, Fitzroy, and fiercely campaigned to prevent its demolition. His stand became a symbol of changing social values towards mindless, bureaucratic 'slum' clearance. He took two thousand colour photographs documenting suburban streetscapes, which were subsequently donated to the University of Melbourne's archives.

Slightly built, quietly spoken and wearing distinctive steel-framed spectacles, O'Brien appeared so impassive during lectures that his wry puns and jokes were unexpected. Outside classes his selfless attitude and impish wit made him a character of distinction. At the office of the government statist, Melbourne, on 28 January 1958 he married Laurie Rose Campbell McBriar, née Douglas. He died of emphysema and chronic bronchitis on 13 August 1965 in South Melbourne and was cremated; his wife and their son survived him, as did the son and daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • B. and K. Smith, The Architectural Character of Glebe, Sydney (Syd, 1973)
  • Fitzroy Historical Society, Fitzroy (Melb, 1989)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Oct 1965
  • Mundus Antiquus, 2, 1978
  • University of Melbourne Archives
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'O'Brien, Jack Lockyer (John) (1909–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-jack-lockyer-john-11274/text20115, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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