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Swan, Trevor Winchester (1918–1989)

by Selwyn Cornish

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Trevor Winchester Swan (1918-1989), economist, was born on 14 January 1918 at Marrickville, Sydney, third child of Sydney-born George Henry Swan, mechanical fitter, and his wife Clara Ellison, née Grant.  Educated at Canterbury Boys’ High School (dux 1935), Trevor enrolled part time at the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1940) while working at the Rural Bank of New South Wales.  He gained first-class honours and the university medal in economics.  An assistant-lecturer (1940-42), he published articles in the Economic Recordin 1940 on Australian war finance and in 1941 on the interest-rate controversy.  He was strongly influenced by John Maynard (Baron) Keynes’s ability to integrate theory and policy, and by the importance that Keynes attached to macro-economic management.  Later, as the focus in economics moved from short-term stabilisation to long-term growth, Swan became as fluent in neo-classical theory as he was in the economics of Keynes.  On 27 May 1941 at St Augustine’s Church of England, Neutral Bay, he married Phyllis Mary (Pat) Grill, a bank officer.

Moving in 1942 to the Department of War Organisation of Industry, Melbourne, Swan developed statistical procedures for the efficient deployment of manpower and drafted key passages of the 1945 white paper on full employment.  In expectation of the disbanding of this department after the war he applied successfully for a senior lectureship at the University of Sydney but, because of his work’s strategic importance, the government would not release him.  Appointed chief economist in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction in 1946, he contributed to the successful demobilisation of servicemen and women, and formulated economic policy to deal with inflation.  With the support of the director-general, H. C. Coombs, Swan was seconded in 1947-48 to the economic section of the British Cabinet Office, London, and in 1948-49 to the United States of America’s Council of Economic Advisers in Washington, DC.  His health suffered during and immediately after the war through his prodigious capacity for work.

In early 1950 Swan was the chief economist in the Prime Minister’s Department, Canberra, and he accompanied (Sir) Robert Menzies on an extensive overseas trip.  That year Swan assumed the foundation chair in the department of economics, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.  He was the Irving Fisher visiting professor of economics at Yale University, Connecticut, in 1962.  Next year he presented the Alfred Marshall lectures at the University of Cambridge.  In 1975 he chaired the government’s committee on tax options and he was a member (1975-85) of the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia.  He retired from the ANU in 1983.

Swan is widely regarded as the greatest economist Australia has produced.  Gough Whitlam described him as 'the doyen of Australian economists'.  Producing a surprisingly small corpus of published work, Swan was criticised by colleagues for failing to publish at rates expected of a professor in a research school.  Yet his researchpublished and unpublishedstood at the forefront of work in the discipline and he was justly acclaimed internationally as a pioneer in economic thought.  In 1943, aged 25, he had drafted a ten-equation quarterly model of the Australian economy, published in the Economic Record in 1989; in 1956 he formulated the neo-classical 'Swan growth model' and he produced several papers on the macro-economic management of a trade-dependent economy with three policy objectives and three policy instruments.  The essential elements of this work were elegantly summarised in the famous 'Swan diagram'.

Several reasons have been advanced to explain Swan’s reluctance to publish the results of his research.  Illness in India, where he worked in the late 1950s on the formulation of the Third Five-Year Plan, left him debilitated.  The retirement of close colleagues robbed him of intellectual stimulus.  His public criticism of the Australian government’s support for the Anglo-French action against Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 excluded him from government contacts.  It has been suggested that his solutions to immediate policy problems, with tight deadlines, had produced his best theoretical work.  Coombs believed that Swan was a 'perfectionist', who rarely considered his work to be ready for publication.

In his youth Swan had acted in radio plays for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and he performed in amateur theatricals until the 1950s.  A member of the Royal Canberra Golf Club, he also enjoyed classical music and was widely read in world literature.  In 1987 he received (with Colin Clark) the Economic Society of Australia’s inaugural distinguished fellow award; he was appointed AO in 1988.  Survived by his wife and their daughter and three sons, he died on 15 January 1989 at his home in Canberra and was cremated.  The annual Trevor Swan Distinguished Lecture commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Cate (ed), An Encyclopedia of Keynesian Economics (1997)
  • J. E. King (ed), A Biographical Dictionary of Australian and New Zealand Economists (2007)
  • Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Annual Report, 1989, p 7
  • Economic Record, vol 65, no 19, 1989, p 369
  • S. Cornish, 'The Appointment of the ANU’s First Professor of Economics', in History of Economics Review, no 46, summer 2007, p 1
  • Canberra Times, 19 January 1989, p 5
  • P. L. Swan, 'ANU Inaugural Trevor Swan Distinguished Lecture', 2006, http://www.crawford. anu.edu.au/pdf/seminars/trevor_swan.pdf, accessed 5 October 2010, printed copy held on ADB file

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Citation details

Selwyn Cornish, 'Swan, Trevor Winchester (1918–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/swan-trevor-winchester-15792/text26991, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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