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Sir Hermann David Black (1904–1990)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published:

Sir Hermann David Black (1904-1990), economist, public-affairs commentator and university chancellor, was born on 15 November 1904 at Dulwich Hill, Sydney, younger son of Melbourne-born parents John Niven Black, an accountant of Scottish origin, and his wife Adele Ottilie, née Püttmann, granddaughter of Hermann Püttmann. After her husband’s death in 1914 Adele married Harry Shaw Clarke, also an accountant, who later suffered pecuniary losses. Hermann grew up in a happy and affectionate household, attended Rockdale Public School and after failing to enter the navy at the age of 13, gained a bursary to Fort Street Boys’ High School in 1918.

In 1922 Black won a Teachers’ College scholarship to the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1927; M.Ec., 1937). Ineligible for arts because he had studied Japanese rather than Latin, he enrolled in economics, from which he graduated with first-class honours, sharing the medal with (Sir) Robert Madgwick. He also won the Jones medal at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1926. At school and university he stood out as a talented student with a capacity for friendship, and a wide range of interests including sport, debating and amateur dramatics. After teaching at Parkes Intermediate High School, Black was recalled to the college in 1927 by the principal, Alexander Mackie. Postings to Nowra and Randwick Boys’ Intermediate High schools followed.

Black was appointed as assistant lecturer in economics at the University of Sydney in 1933. Two years later he was promoted to lecturer and in 1937 he achieved first-class honours for his master’s thesis. Awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, he spent 1936-38 in the United States of America and Europe. In 1939 he was invited by the New South Wales premier, (Sir) Bertram Stevens, to become adviser to the Treasury and, with the approval of the senate of the university, he served part time with the Treasury throughout World War II. His work for the government included reporting on matters relevant to decentralisation, loan council meetings, uniform taxation and loan raising for postwar graduates. He played a part in persuading the government to raise the school-leaving age from 14 to 15 and to appoint a permanent economic adviser. In 1944 he was promoted to senior lecturer and in 1951 he visited the USA under State Department auspices to study foreign and economic policy. He served as acting professor of economics in 1956. Retiring in 1969, he was made senior fellow in economics from 1970.

A self-confessed generalist who was influenced by Joseph Schumpeter, Black taught at all levels of the economics course from 1932 to 1989. Teaching, he believed, was intended less to instil knowledge than to develop the intellect. The lecturer, he observed, `displays the processes of his own reasoning’. What was taught was `not conclusion, but how to reason’. Some found his style discursive but his first-year introductory course was widely acclaimed and he was admired for infusing human values and colour into the `dismal science’. Although he produced numerous papers and addresses, he was interested less in research and publication than in applying economic theory to practical issues.

This orientation underlay Black’s remarkable capacity to bridge the gap between town and gown. He was an exceptionally talented orator, able to stimulate diverse audiences on an array of subjects. As a student he had taken part in community discussion groups and after graduating he lectured for the Workers’ Educational Association of New South Wales. During World War II he spent his university vacations lecturing for the Australian Army Education Service. He also lectured for and chaired the University Extension Board and was a member (1939-79) of the joint committee for tutorial classes. It was, however, broadcasting that made `H. D. Black’ a household name. He first spoke on air in 1926 in a Sydney-Oxford university union debate. A news commentator for the Australian Broadcasting Commission from the 1930s and member of discussion panels such as `Monday Conference’, he also captivated generations of school children through his talks in series such as `The World We Live In’. Black saw public speaking as an art form: `graceful, educative and entertaining’. He possessed a phenomenal memory, an unsurpassed command of language, an apt turn of phrase and a singular capacity to make telling use of anecdote. Solidly built, with a calm, dignified, reassuring presence, he spoke graciously but never condescendingly, lightening his words with touches of humour. Above all there was his voice—vibrant, cultivated and mellifluous; like everything else about him it was natural and unforced.

Black’s experience of the University of Sydney’s governing body began with his election to the senate in 1949. In December 1969 he was elected deputy-chancellor and five months later chancellor. This result was not universally welcomed and challenges were threatened before later elections, but none eventuated. As a member of senate he saw the university emerge from the overcrowded postwar years into the era of expansion made possible by the 1957 report of Sir Keith Murray’s committee on Australian universities. While chancellor he was confronted by student unrest and financial stringencies in the 1970s and then by bureaucratic intervention, culminating in reforms of the late 1980s instituted by the Federal minister for employment, education and training, John Dawkins. His powers as chancellor were circumscribed, but he resolved to be more than a figurehead.

Universities, he insisted, must function `without the claims of utilitarian philosophies laying their particular control over them’. They were not `creatures of the market place’ but centres of learning entrusted with responsibility for promoting knowledge and developing `new truths, new horizons, new insights’. He encouraged change but, when basic academic values were threatened by militant students or intrusive governments, he responded with passion, threatening to resign in the late 1980s unless the State government abandoned moves likely to undermine the autonomy of the senate. Throughout, he provided courteous but firm leadership, blending deeply held beliefs with practical common sense and astute judgment sharpened by long experience in the world of affairs. His warm manner at graduation ceremonies affected the 60,000 students to whom he awarded degrees while chancellor. In 1978 he established the chancellor’s committee to raise money for university-wide projects.

Black had married Katrina Mary Heyde on 29 December 1928 at the Pitt Street Congregational Church, Sydney. She later suffered an incurable mental breakdown, but their marriage could not be ended until, with Black’s urging, the New South Wales divorce law was changed. The pain which this caused him was relieved by the happy years following his marriage to Edith Joyce Black, née Ritchie, who had taken his name, on 22 November 1963 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. She was a University of Sydney graduate (BA, 1939) and a talented organist and musician who worked as a secretary and a schoolteacher. Affectionately described by her husband as the `better half of the Chancellor of the University’, she worked unstintingly on the university’s behalf and was made an honorary fellow in 1986.

A member of the Australian Round Table, Black was active in the Australian Institute of International Affairs, editing Australian Outlook (1953-58) and serving as president (1950-54) of the New South Wales branch. He was a member of the editorial board of the Current Affairs Bulletin, honorary secretary (1944) of a relief committee of the Australia-India Association and president (1958-60) of the Oriental Society of Australia. Active in business and financial circles, he was president (1961) of the State branch of the Economics Society of Australia and New Zealand. Appointment as chair of the newly established Australian Tax Research Foundation in 1982 reflected his long-standing interest in tax reform. He represented (1970-86) the university on the board of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

Universities, Black remarked, `are peculiar places’, but to be in one was `a kind of enrichment’. He derived great pleasure from his own university and participated in every aspect of its life. Fond of sport, he also loved theatre, art and music, played the violin, and wrote poetry and fascinating travel diaries. An extraordinarily well-rounded figure with a zest for life, he possessed a warm, gregarious nature and great charm. He described himself as a nineteenth-century liberal who had adapted to the twentieth century; he cared `not one fig for any political party’, viewing them as his `servants’ and not `his spiritual home’. In his youth he had attended Anglican and Lutheran services, but while recognising the importance of religion he did not see it as a determining influence in his life. He was his own master, courting neither popularity nor advancement but enjoying both when they came. In 1982 the Rotary Club of Sydney gave him a vocational service award. He was honoured by the universities of Newcastle (D.Litt., 1971), New England (D.Univ., 1988) and Sydney (D.Univ., 1990). Knighted in 1974, he was appointed AC in 1986. Survived by his wife, Sir Hermann died on 28 February 1990 at St Leonards, a few miles from the Roseville home where he had lived for fifty years. He had no children by either marriage. Louis Kahan’s portrait (1974) of Black is held by the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Connell et al, Australia’s First, vol 2 (1995)
  • Economic Record, vol 66, no 194, 1990, p 266
  • People (Sydney), 16 Dec 1953, p 43
  • Fortian, 1969, p 64
  • Sydney University Economics Society, Economic Review, 1969, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Mar 1990, p 2
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, Mar 1990, p 19, June 1990, p 4
  • Black papers and Senate minutes, 1949-90 (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Black, Sir Hermann David (1904–1990)', 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]


15 November, 1904
Dulwich Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 February, 1990 (aged 85)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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