Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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ADB General Editor

The General Editor is the academic adviser and executive officer of the Editorial Board and manages the production of the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Present and Past General Editors:
Professor Melanie Nolan (2008- )
Dr Di Langmore (2001-2008)
Professor John Ritchie (1988-2002)
Dr Geoff Serle (1975-1987)
Bede Nairn (1974-1984)
Professor Douglas Pike (1962-1974) 

Melanie Nolan, 2008- 

Melanie NolanProfessor Melanie Nolan became General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and inaugural Director of the National Centre of Biography on 2 June 2008. She has an Australasian background. Born in Reefton on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, she won a junior university scholarship in 1978 and attended the University of Canterbury, graduating with a BA in 1982 and an MA (Hons) in 1985. In 1984-86 she worked in industrial relations at the State Services Commission. Crossing the Tasman, she graduated with a PhD from the Australian National University in 1990. In 1989-90 she worked in the Treaty Issues Unit of the Crown Law Office in New Zealand and, for the next three years, as an historian in the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs. She was appointed to a lectureship at Victoria University of Wellington in 1992, becoming Head of Program in 2006 and Professor of History in 2007. She has taught courses on Australian and New Zealand history, labour history, theory and methodology, crime fiction and social history, and biography, and supervised twenty MA and PhD students to completion and over twenty Honours theses.

Melanie is a specialist in labour history and gender history; her MA was on New Zealand industrial relations while her PhD was on the feminisation of white-collar labour in Australia. Her current project is ‘Generations At Work: Work Patterns in Twentieth-Century Australia’. She is on the editorial boards of Australia's Labour History and Britain's Labour History Review. A member of the Labour History Working Party of the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography, she has written a number of entries for that Dictionary. Since 1990 she has been a regular visitor to the History Program, Research School of Social Sciences, ANU, and a Visiting Associate in History at the California Institute of Technology.

Melanie has a particular interest in collective biography. Her book Kin: A Collective Biography of a New Zealand Working Class Family (2005) won the Ian Wards prize in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Ernest Scott prize in 2007. The judges for the Ernest Scott prize described Kin as 'an engaging study of a single immigrant family', in which Nolan 'questions wider assumptions about New Zealand labour history. The expansive engagement with many strands of New Zealand history, most particularly the historiographies of labour, gender and religion, takes the narrative out of the workplace into the arenas of the home, the church and voluntary association'.

In addition to publishing articles in books and journals, Melanie is the author of Breadwinning: New Zealand Women and the State (2000), co-editor of Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives (1994), and editor of Revolution: The 1913 Strike in New Zealand (2005,) and War and Class. The Diary of Jack McCullough (2009). In Common Cause: The New Zealand Federation of Labour 1937-1987 (2009) is forthcoming.


Di Langmore, 2001-2008

Di LangmoreDi Langmore was born at Brighton, Melbourne, and educated at Firbank Church of England Girls' Grammar School. After graduating BA Hons (1963), Dip. Ed. (1964) from the University of Melbourne, she went with her husband to Papua New Guinea, where she taught at a Port Moresby high school and, after its foundation, at the University of Papua New Guinea. Her MA (1972), a biography of a nineteenth century Scottish missionary who was killed and eaten in Papua, was published by Melbourne University Press as Tamate-a King (1974).

Di returned to Australia with her husband and three daughters in 1976; they settled in Canberra. Enrolling for a Ph.D. (1982) at ANU, she embarked on a group biography of all the missionaries who served in Papua before World War I, a study later published by University of Hawaii Press as Missionary Lives (1988). While completing her thesis she tutored in John Ritchie's Australian History course.

In 1982 Di joined the staff of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and was soon made research editor for the Victorian desk, a post she held until 1997 when she was appointed Deputy General Editor. During that period her third and fourth books were published: Prime Ministers' Wives (1992) and Glittering Surfaces: A Life of Maie Casey (1997). As well as publishing articles on biography and on Pacific and Australian history in scholarly journals, she has contributed forty-four articles to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

When the General Editor, John Ritchie, was forced through ill health to give up his desk in 2001, Di took over as acting General Editor and was confirmed in the position in 2004. She co-edited Volume 16 (2002) of the ADB with John Ritchie and edited Volume 17 (2007). With the Deputy General Editor and project manager, Darryl Bennet, she planned and oversaw the creation of ADB Online, which was launched, to acclaim, in 2006.

In 2002 Di was awarded an ANU medal for General Staff Excellence. She retired in 2008 and was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. In 2009 she received an ADB medal for distinguished service.  


John Ritchie, 1988-2002

John Ritchie was born in East Melbourne and educated at Northcote High School. After graduating with a BA (Hons) at the University of Melbourne, he obtained a Dip.Ed. and became a teaching fellow at Monash University in 1964. In 1969, he was appointed to a lectureship in history at the ANU after completing his PhD there. Attired in his old university gown, John gave meticulously prepared lectures on British and Australian history to an ever growing number of students. His tutorials were tightly controlled exercises designed to encourage the first steps in the systematic use of primary sources. Students' essays, rigorously marked both as to content and structure, were employed by John not merely to develop their knowledge of the subject but also to ensure that they carried into later life a conviction that to write English with clarity, correct spelling, proper punctuation and a sense of direction was a hallmark of an educated person.

During the twenty years he gave to teaching, John published Punishment and Profit (1970), The Evidence to the Bigge Reports (1971) and Australia As Once We Were (1975). His masterly work, Lachlan Macquarie: A Biography, appeared in 1986. During those years he also edited the Labour History journal, helping to establish it on a national footing as a scholarly publication.

In 1988 John was appointed a professorial fellow (professor 1992) in the Research School of Social Sciences and General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in succession to Geoffrey Serle. His experience as an author and editor had equipped him admirably for this task. John threw himself totally into the seemingly endless grind of seeing thousands of short biographies through the process of their development from draft manuscripts to polished entries in the ADB. By 2000 he had seen Serle's volume 11 through the press and edited volumes 12 to 15. He co-edited volume 16 with Di Langmore. In 1997 he published The Wentworths, Father and Son (1997). Volume 2 of this monumental work had not progressed far when, in 2001, John was forced to lay down his pen after a stroke.

A fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and the Royal Historical Society, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Australian Historical Society, John retired as General Editor of the ADB in 2002, and was appointed AO that year and emeritus professor, ANU, in 2003. He died on 10 May 2006 at his home in Aranda, Canberra.

* taken from an obituary of John Ritchie by John Molony


Geoff Serle, 1975-1987

Geoff Serle

Born in Melbourne and educated at Scotch College, Geoff Serle proceeded in 1941 to the University of Melbourne, where he read history. On 13 October that year he suspended his studies and enlisted in the Melbourne University Regiment, transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 15 September 1942. During his thirty-two months service he was seriously wounded in action at Finschhafen, New Guinea. Discharged from the army on 7 June 1944, he resumed his undergraduate course, and numbered Max Crawford, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark among his mentors. Geoff joined the Labour Club, helped to found the Victorian Fabian Society and co-edited (with Ken Gott) Melbourne University Magazine. After completing his B.A.(Hons) degree in 1946, he won a Rhodes Scholarship and entered University College, Oxford, where he graduated D.Phil, in 1950. He returned to the University of Melbourne, taught Australian history there and, from 1961, at Monash University, and in 1955-63 edited Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand.

In a career that was as multifaceted as it was creative, Geoff established his name as historian, biographer and editor. His first book of history, The Melbourne Scene, 1803-1956, co-edited with James Grant, was a collection of documents, published in 1957. It was followed by two general histories of the colony of Victoria, The Golden Age (1963) and The Rush to be Rich (1971). In 1973 he produced From Deserts the Prophets Come, a history of Australian literature, art, music, theatre, architecture and science. His biographies included John Monash (1982), which won four major awards; Percival Serle (1988), the most sensitive, self-revealing and elegant of all his works; Sir John Medley (1993) and Robin Boyd (1995). In addition to these full-scale studies, he also completed forty-nine entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Most of them are jewels. Varying in length from 500 to 6000 words, these articles cover subjects ranging from John Curtin to the Mclnnes brothers, Graham and Colin. Geoff’s 'brief lives' reveal the span of his interests and expertise, the humanity of his judgement, and the precision of his prose. In 1975 he and Bede Nairn were appointed joint General Editors of the ADB. One came from a middle-class, Protestant and Melburnian background; the other, by upbringing, was working-class, Catholic and a Sydneysider. They made a marvellous team. Together, they produced volumes 7 to 10; after Bede's retirement, Geoff edited volume 11 alone.

Geoff also contributed a great deal to libraries, magazines, the arts and sport. In 1966, with Professor A. G. L. Shaw, he founded the Friends of the La Trobe Library to promote development of the library's research collections; he was, in turn, secretary, president and vice-president of the Friends, foundation editor of the La Trobe Library Journal, and vice-president (1989-94) of the council of the State Library of Victoria. Conscious of the merits of other repositories, he supported the National Library of Australia, the Australian War Memorial and the National Gallery of Australia. Geoff's love of Australian literature, and his friendship with Clem Christesen and Stephen Murray-Smith, led him to be closely associated with Meanjin and Overland: he contributed to both magazines, edited Meanjin in 1957, and chaired its board and that of Overland. In his youth Geoff was an excellent hurdler and hockey-player, and a capable cricketer and Australian Rules footballer; in middle age he was an enthusiastic spectator at all these sports; even in his sixties he continued to play a wily game of tennis against members of the ADB staff, a number of whom were nearly a generation younger.

A fellow of the Australian academies of the Humanities and of the Social Sciences, and of the Royal Victorian and Royal Australian Historical societies, Geoff was appointed AO in 1986. He had been promoted to a readership in 1963, but neither sought nor accepted a chair. Incisive and insightful, pragmatic and down-to-earth, left-leaning in his political sympathies without being dogmatic, he was gentle in nature, thoughtful in temperament, egalitarian in outlook, exceptionally hard-working, and a loyal friend. He enjoyed a can of beer, a glass of wine, a cigarette and his pipe. He died on 27 April 1998 at Epworth Hospital, Richmond.

* taken from an obituary of Geoff Serle by John Ritchie


Bede Nairn, 1974-1984

Bede NairnAfter a childhood spent ‘one step up from real poverty’, Bede Nairn joined the NSW Public Service upon completing the Intermediate certificate. He continued to study part time, gaining first his matriculation then, as a night student, a BA (Hons) in 1945 and a MA in 1955 from the University of Sydney. From 1945 he lectured in history at the New South Wales University of Technology (later University of New South Wales), becoming senior lecturer and head of the school of history in 1956 and, in 1961, associate professor of history.

Bede was an influential figure in the Australian Study of Labour History from its foundation in 1961 and was a member of its executive and of the editorial board of Labour History. His article, ‘Writing Australian History’, published in the journal Manna was praised as ‘one of the first great essays in historical criticism in Australia’. In 1973 he published Civilising Capitalism: The Labour Movement in NSW 1870-1900 and, in 1986, The Big Fella: Jack Lang and the Australian Labor Party, 1891-1949.

Bede had become chairman of the New South Wales Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1962. Three years later he moved to Canberra to join the ADB staff at the Australian National University. When Douglas Pike fell ill in 1973 Bede became ADB General Editor for volume 6. In a significantly harmonious partnership, he and Geoff Serle were joint General Editors for volumes 7 to 10. 

Warm and approachable, Bede had a firm commitment to continuing the high standards at the ADB set by Pike. A fine administrator, sensitive to human frailties and fiercely devoted to the project, Bede consolidated the dictionary’s achievements. He was a skilful editor, as adept at cutting a superfluous phrase as in summarising a wordy paragraph. His own writing was clear and graceful (with occasionally a Beethovian deliberate discord). He retired as General Editor in 1984. Among the most notable of the eighty ADB entries he wrote himself are those on Frank Dickson, trade unionist, Archie Jackson and Victor Trumper, cricketers, and Jimmie and ‘Darby’ Munro, jockeys.

Bede had joined the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1964, and was elected a fellow in 1987. In the society’s journal he chose to publish major articles such as ‘The Political Mastery of Sir Henry Parkes’ (March 1967). His last publication in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society was ‘The Governor, the Bushranger and the Premier’ (Dec 2000). Throughout his career he supported young scholars, and was much in demand as a sympathetic examiner and a generous adviser on manuscripts. He had a world-wide circle of friends and correspondents. In 1988 he was appointed AO for service to education as an historian and a biographer. The History Council of New South Wales presented a citation to him in 2000 in recognition of his contribution to Australian biography and history.

Bede’s Catholic faith was a lifelong commitment. Rugby League had been an abiding enthusiasm. South Sydney was his team and his last entry for the ADB was an article on the ‘Little Master’ Clive Churchill. Bede died in Canberra on 21 April 2006.

* taken from an obituary of Bede Nairn by Chris Cunneen


Douglas Pike, 1962-1974

Douglas PikeThe son of Australian-born Baptist missionaries, Douglas Pike was educated at the Inland Mission School at Chefoo (Yanti) in China. In 1924 he accompanied his parents when they took leave in Australia and remained in Melbourne to complete his education. He worked as a teacher in the Victorian Department of Education in 1926-27 and studied at the University of Melbourne.  He then moved to New South Wales where he worked as a rouseabout, shearer and finally station overseer.

In 1940 Doug was ordained into the Church of Christ ministry and, from 1942, worked as a clergyman in Adelaide. He enrolled at the University of Adelaide, completing his BA course in 1948 with first-class honours in history and the Tinline scholarship. Resigning from his ministry, he continued his studies, gaining an MA in 1951 and a D.Litt in 1957. In 1949 he was appointed temporary lecturer at the University of Western Australia but returned to Adelaide as a reader late in 1950. Appointed to the chair of history at the University of Tasmania in 1960, he became foundation General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography on 31 January 1962, commuting between Hobart and Canberra until December next year. He settled in Canberra on 1 January 1964 as a professor in the Research School of Social Sciences of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University.

The ADB had been mooted in the 1950s and by 1961 a small staff had been engaged on preliminary work for it, but no firm plans had been made for its production. With characteristic energy and foresight Pike set about organising the project. He soon discovered that a general editor required the skills of a manager and the tact of a diplomat as well as the qualities of an historian and biographer - as he often remarked, his country pioneering stood him in good stead. He needed his diverse range of experience as he consolidated the administrative structure, comprising section editors, National Committee, Editorial Board and Working Parties, and began the task of producing the first two volumes, 1107 entries, covering 1788-1850. Volume 1 appeared in 1966 and volume 2 in 1967.

By that time Pike had put into shape a complex and efficient production system. His natural courtesy and firm belief in the value of the Dictionary had enabled him to obtain the co-operation of a great variety of people: his office staff, who helped in administration, research and checking; senior academics, who assisted in the broad aspects of editing, in the listing of entries and the allocation of authors, and very many writers (about 300 for each volume), from a wide range of occupations and locations. All of these, except the office staff, were unpaid. The principle of honorary national collaboration was firmly established, stemming from the history departments of all the Australian universities, through local historical and genealogical societies, State and National libraries and archives, to many individuals throughout the continent. Not the least of Pike's achievements was to gain the support of registrars of births, deaths and marriages and probates. He was warmly appreciative of all this willing help.

Volumes 1 and 2 established the scholarly base of the Dictionary and its social and educative value. Pike had acquired a distaste for adjectives and adverbs - of course, many of them escaped his net, but he was always sadly aware of it - and had developed a flair for lean prose. He was a great raconteur and more than once claimed that, when a minister, he could always reduce his sermons to one sentence as he ascended the pulpit. He did not overtly expect his authors to do the same with their articles, but often gave the impression that he wanted something like it; some of them objected, but reconciliations were nearly always reached, and each volume won renown (as he might have put it) for succinct restatement of what was well known and much compact presentation of what was new. This high repute was mainly attributable to Pike's skill and industry, but he never tired of acknowledging the teamwork that went into the Dictionary.

Pike's sympathetic and effective teaching and his publications, especially Paradise of Dissent: South Australia 1829-1857 (1957) and Australia: The Quiet Continent (1962), had established him as one of Australia's most distinguished historians; his work on the ADB revealed him as incomparably the country's best academic editor. He was quietly spoken, with a dry but genial sense of humour, leavened by the wisdom that flowed from his innate generosity and his spacious experience and fertile memory; his personal qualities complemented his erudition to enable him to grasp the total substance of the Dictionary as well as the significance of every article and its relationship to the whole. He was conscious of the constraint to keep volumes and articles within the allotted word lengths, but was equally aware of the individuality of each author and the uniqueness of each entry. As successive volumes appeared in 1969 and 1972 they revealed how he had mastered the complex task of harmonising concise biographical writing, virtually all of it new, with the occasionally conflicting demands of contributors and publishers. The Ernest Scott Prize in 1969 and the Britannica Australia Award in 1971 provided appropriate recognition for his great achievement.

In 1973 there were signs that his health was suffering, at least partly from his intense editorial efforts, but by the latter part of the year he had volume 5 substantially prepared. Pike was to retire on 31 December and had been invited to carry on in order to complete volume 6, the last of the 1851-1890 series. But he suffered a cerebral thrombosis on 11 November and was admitted to Canberra Hospital, where he died on 19 May 1974.

* taken from Bede Nairn's ADB article on Douglas Pike

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