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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Russell, Eric Alfred (1921–1977)

by G. C. Harcourt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Eric Alfred Russell (1921-1977), economist, was born on 20 December 1921 at Colac, Victoria, second son of William John Russell, stationmaster, and his wife Lillian Rosetta, née Holland, both Victorian born. William's occupation meant that the family moved frequently. Eric was educated at Melbourne High School (1936-38) and the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, B.Com., 1943) where he tutored (1943-44) in advanced economics. At Wesley Church, Melbourne, on 8 June 1945 he married with Methodist forms Norma Mary Farrow, a clerk; they were to be divorced in 1948. He proceeded to King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1947; M.A., 1959), studied under the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and gained first-class honours in the economics tripos.

Returning to Australia, Russell lectured (1947-50) at New England University College, Armidale, New South Wales. On 18 August 1948 at St Paul's Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, he married Judith Roe, a university teacher. He taught at the University of Sydney (from 1951) before being appointed senior lecturer in economics at the University of Adelaide in 1952. He was promoted to reader in 1958 and professor in 1964, and was head of department in 1966-75. A gifted teacher, and a superb but gentle critic, he influenced a generation of undergraduates.

Russell examined the wool boom of the early 1950s, balance of payments, import controls, Australia and the European Economic Community, distribution issues (most noticeably incomes policies), education, international investment and the energy crisis. He published little, yet his was always one of the earliest and wisest voices analysing the major issues of the Australian economy from the 1950s to the 1970s. He was a political economist in the best sense of the term—conscious of the political and institutional settings of any economic problem and interested in economics only in so far as it bore directly or indirectly on policy issues. In a seminal paper (Economic Record, April 1957) he and James Meade set out how the Australian economy worked, what the social relationships and relevant institutions were, how the domestic price level was formed and how Australia as a small open economy responded to external pressures.

In 1959 Russell appeared before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to present evidence on behalf of wage-earners. His arguments for adjusting money incomes according to effective productivity and prices were to provide the foundation for the wages accord (1983). In his presidential address in 1972 to the economics section at the Adelaide conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science he made evident his deep understanding and intelligence, especially in his views on methodology, the value of economic theory and the use of empirical evidence.

A member (1970-75) of the Australian Advisory Committee on Research and Development in Education, Russell was elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1973. In addition to his interest in economics, history, philosophy and politics, he loved the theatre, painting and sport. He was a complex and private man who worked intensely hard. Such intensity took its toll. Survived by his wife and their three sons, he died of myocardial ischaemia on 26 February 1977 in Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Harcourt, The Social Science Imperialists (Lond, 1982)
  • Australian Economic Papers, 16, 1977, p 159
  • G. C. Harcourt, 'Eric Russell, 1921-77: A Memoir', Economic Record, 53, 1977, p 467.

Citation details

G. C. Harcourt, 'Russell, Eric Alfred (1921–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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