Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, John David (1934–1995)

by Denis Cryle and Celeste Lawson

This article was published online in 2019

John David Smith (1934–1995), professor of computing and industry consultant, was born on 5 November 1934 at Keighley, Yorkshire, son of Wilfrid Cockroft Smith, worsted spinners' manager, and his wife Mary Kathleen, née West. After attending Ripon Grammar (1943–51) and Bradford Grammar (1951–52) schools, John graduated from the University of Edinburgh (MA, 1956), with honours in mathematics and natural philosophy. On 18 July 1956, in a Church of Scotland ceremony at Falkirk, he married Mary Taylor Stark. He spent his two years of national service (1956–58) in the Royal Air Force in England, being commissioned in April 1957. Between 1959 and 1962 he was a district officer with the colonial government of Tanganyika (Tanzania); in 1962 and 1963, an industry consultant at Newport, Wales; and from 1964, science officer with the British Council at Madras (Chennai), India. There, separated from his wife (divorced 1973), he formed a relationship with Rita Dorothy Moore, née Moss, his partner until her death in 1985.

In November 1968 the couple migrated to Australia and Smith took up an appointment as a senior lecturer in mathematics at the Queensland Institute of Technology (Capricornia), Rockhampton. Resigning in October 1970, he joined the management consultants W. D. Scott & Co. Pty Ltd in Sydney. The firm sent him to the Philippines in 1971 to assist the San Miguel Corporation in Manila. He returned in July 1973 to the renamed Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education (CIAE) (University College of Central Queensland from 1990), as head of mathematics and computing.

Smith was well placed to exert a progressive influence on the new institution. From the outset, he had been active in building its ties with local industry, notably through the Industry Institute Group and the Central Queensland Computer Users’ Society, which he would lead throughout his career. At a 1975 symposium, which he and four others convened, he was critical of government agencies that sought to impose solutions to regional problems without sufficient regard to input by locals. He went on to argue for the establishment of an independent ‘Central Queensland Information, Planning & Research Centre,’ acting as a policy and problem-solving agency, ‘with technological skills, capable of working across the lines’ (Anderson et al. 1975, 115).

Appointed as foundation professor of computing when the college became the autonomous University of Central Queensland in 1992 (Central Queensland University from 1994), Smith regularly presented papers at international conferences on artificial intelligence and expert systems, co-published on those topics in professional journals, and obtained external research grants for their application in industry. He was a long-term member, executive committee-man, and fellow of the Queensland branch of the Australian Computer Society (ACS); a fellow (1974) of the British Institute of Mathematics and its Applications; and a member (1973) of the Australian Mathematical Society and its applied mathematics division.

The bearded Smith cultivated the air of a humanist philosopher, rather than that of a technocrat. Unusual in the breadth of his vision, he supported the establishment within the university of the Capricornia Aboriginal and Islander Tertiary Education Centre; advocated a stronger presence for the humanities and the arts; and championed the adoption of social and cross-disciplinary perspectives to complement the ‘nitty gritty engineering [and] business studies’ (Anderson et al. 1975, 186). He was active in the university’s offshore education initiatives in the 1990s, and he contributed to the Academic Board and its sub-committees. His example and endeavours influenced the outlooks of his science-oriented colleagues and anticipated and helped to nurture the ethos towards university autonomy.

Smith’s partner after Rita’s death, Ruth Dunshea, described him as ‘tall, with clear blue eyes and a very deep voice’ and as ‘a particularly kind, creative, energetic and appealing man’ (Dunshea, pers. comm.). He died of cancer on 6 August 1995 at his Rockhampton home and was buried in Emu Park cemetery. His partner survived him, as did the two sons and one daughter of his first relationship; the son, and the stepson and stepdaughter, of his second; and the two sons and one daughter of his third. An official tribute acknowledged him as a ‘unique and towering figure’ throughout the long transition of the CIAE to full university status (CQU 1995, 16). The ACS established a prize in his name, to be awarded annually to the top Queensland undergraduate in the field.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, John, Bob Firth, Lex Ross, Norman Smith, and John Smith, eds. Central Queensland and Its Institute. Rockhampton, Qld: Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education, 1975
  • Central Queensland University. Annual Report. Rockhampton, Qld: CQU, 1995
  • Cryle, Denis. Academia Capricornia: A History of the University of Central Queensland. Rockhampton, Qld: University of Central Queensland, 1992
  • Dunshea, Ruth. Personal communication
  • Lundin, Karen. Personal communication
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld). ‘Wake Planned to Remember Friend.’ 10 August 1995, 6
  • National Archives of Australia. J25, 1974/5203
  • Smith, Gareth. Personal communication

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Citation details

Denis Cryle and Celeste Lawson, 'Smith, John David (1934–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-john-david-19492/text30876, published online 2019, accessed online 16 July 2019.

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