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James Johnston Auchmuty (1909–1981)

by Kenneth R. Dutton

This article was published:

James Johnston Auchmuty (1909-1981), historian and vice-chancellor, was born on 29 November 1909 at Portadown, (Northern) Ireland, elder son of James Wilson Auchmuty, Church of Ireland clergyman, and his wife Annie Todd, née Johnston. James attended the Royal School, Armagh, and Trinity College, Dublin (BA, 1931; MA, 1934; Ph.D., 1935), from which he graduated with a first-class moderatorship in modern history and political science. He was elected to the position of auditor of the College Historical Society for the 1931-32 session. On 20 October 1934 in Creggan parish church, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, he married Mary Margaret Walters, an American who was a Vassar College graduate.

Abandoning thoughts of ordination after a single term at Ripon Hall, Oxford, Auchmuty returned to Dublin and pursued a career as a schoolmaster at Sandford Park School (1934-46), while lecturing in education at Trinity College (1938-43). He stood unsuccessfully for one of the university’s three senate seats in 1943. A staunch internationalist and supporter of Allied engagement in World War II, he was unable to join the armed forces because of poor eyesight, and instead was recruited into the British Military Intelligence 6. He carried out intelligence work and pro-British cultural propaganda in Ireland. Denounced by Eamon de Valera as one of a number of persons working for non-Irish interests, he left after the war to avoid internment. A position of associate professor of history was found for him at Farouk I University at Alexandria, Egypt, where he taught and continued his work of political reporting and propaganda until obliged to leave the country, his savings confiscated, on the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.

Through contacts in British intelligence, Auchmuty was recommended for the post of senior lecturer in history at the New South Wales University of Technology, Sydney (later the University of New South Wales), to which he moved in 1952. By this time he had ceased to be active as an intelligence operative. In 1954 the university’s director, (Sir) Philip Baxter, sent him, as associate professor, to head the school of humanities and social sciences at Newcastle University College. Promoted to professor of history and deputy-warden of the University College next year, he became warden in 1960 and foundation vice-chancellor when the college gained autonomy as the University of Newcastle in 1965.

Auchmuty had been elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1938. He was a foundation member (1956) and chairman (1962-65) of the Australian Humanities Research Council and a foundation fellow (1969) and member (1969-70) of the council of its successor, the Australian Academy of the Humanities. An active figure (chairman, 1969-71) in the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, he was also a council member (1967-74) of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and was awarded its Symons medal in 1974. From 1973 to 1976 he chaired the Australian National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He was appointed CBE in 1971 and in 1974 was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Sydney (D.Litt.), Newcastle (D.Litt.), and Trinity College, Dublin (LL D). On his retirement from the University of Newcastle that year, the library and the sports centre were named after him, reflecting two of his particular interests. He and his wife then moved to Canberra.

Apart from his doctoral thesis on nineteenth-century United States government policy on Latin-American independence, Auchmuty’s earliest publications were in Irish history, including a history of Irish education. A champion of the biographical approach to history, he wrote studies of the Irish historian William Lecky and the politician Sir Thomas Wyse. He turned himself into a historian of nineteenth-century Australia, concentrating on the Anglo-Irish influence. He was an early member of the national committee for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, being one of the few members of the group to have good relations with both Malcolm Ellis and Manning Clark. Auchmuty wrote the ADB entries on John Hunter, D'Arcy Wentworth and Josiah Brown Pearson. Unusually for a vice-chancellor, he remained active in both teaching and research while carrying a heavy administrative load.

Of portly build and with a large head, Auchmuty was a man of perpetually ebullient character whose bluff manner sometimes alienated others. Accusations of overweening ambition had some foundation, though his rise to a vice-chancellorship was due as much to the patronage of Baxter and to the vagaries of good fortune as to his qualities of character. Once installed, however, he showed himself a shrewd and capable leader who won the admiration of his fellow vice-chancellors.

In 1969 Auchmuty was appointed to head a national advisory committee on the teaching of Asian languages and cultures. The committee reported in 1970; eventually the governments of both (Sir) William McMahon and Gough Whitlam agreed to implement its recommendations, leading to an expansion in the teaching of Asian studies in Australia. After his retirement, Auchmuty headed a national committee on teacher education (1978-80): its recommendations were largely overtaken by government cost-cutting and the amalgamations of universities and teachers colleges. The punishing schedule required for the preparation of the report may have adversely affected his health. He died on 15 October 1981 at Bloomington, Indiana, United States of America. His wife survived him, as did a son and daughter; their younger son had died in infancy. Auchmuty was cremated and his ashes were placed in the columbarium of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, of which he had been a regular parishioner while vice-chancellor.

Though he would have wished to be remembered chiefly as a historian, his espousal of the ‘Great Man’ approach—as opposed to a concentration on broad social movements—put him at odds with the tendencies of his day, and he was not an influential figure in his field. His contribution to university administration, and notably his role in leading the University of Newcastle to autonomy, was Auchmuty’s most significant achievement.

Select Bibliography

  • Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland), Record Volume (1951)
  • D. Wright, Looking Back: A History of the University of Newcastle (1992)
  • C. C. O’Brien, Memoir (1998)
  • P. O’Farrell, UNSW, a Portrait (1999)
  • K. R. Dutton, Auchmuty (2000)
  • D. Rowe, interview with J. J. Auchmuty (typescript, 1981, University of Newcastle Archives)
  • J. J. Auchmuty papers (University of Newcastle Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kenneth R. Dutton, 'Auchmuty, James Johnston (1909–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 November, 1909
Portadown, Armagh, Ireland


15 October, 1981 (aged 71)
Bloomington, Indiana, United States of America

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