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Wilfred David (Mick) Borrie (1913–2000)

by Peter McDonald

This article was published online in 2023

Wilfred Borrie, by Gab Carpay, 1968

Wilfred Borrie, by Gab Carpay, 1968

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-107

Wilfred David Borrie (1913–2000), professor of demography, was born on 2 September 1913 at Waimate, New Zealand, youngest of six children of Peter William Borrie, farmer, and his wife Isabella, née Doig. Mick, as he was known from an early age, was educated at Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru. Having been awarded a Ross fellowship, he attended the University of Otago (MA, 1937), where he was president (1936) of the students’ association and graduated with first-class honours in social and economic history. In 1939, with the aid of a Shirtcliffe research fellowship, he left New Zealand to study at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, but his studies were interrupted by World War II and he returned to New Zealand in March 1940. On 4 January 1941, at Oamaru, he married Alice Hazel Miller, also a history graduate from the University of Otago, whom he had known during his high school years. The couple moved to Sydney, where he was history master at Knox Grammar School in 1941. The next year he was appointed a research fellow in the department of economics, University of Sydney; then lecturer (1944–46) and senior lecturer (1947–48) in social history for the university’s board of social studies.

Borrie’s early research on migration to New Zealand in the nineteenth century was published in 1944. In the same year he produced several papers on population policy, showing his broadening interest in population studies, a field that was to become his life’s work. In 1947 he obtained a social science research fellowship provided by the interim council of the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, which provided for two years of study overseas. He chose to go to the London School of Economics and Political Science where, under the auspices of William Beveridge, demography had emerged in the 1930s as an important field of inquiry. The United Kingdom’s Royal Commission on Population (1944–49) further stimulated his interest in the subject of demography.

While in London, Borrie accepted an appointment in the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences. One of the first academics to be chosen, he was to take up the role in February 1949. In London he produced his first major publication, Population Trends and Policies: A Study in Australian and World Demography (1948). The main theme of the book was that the postwar surge in births was a temporary phenomenon due to early marriages brought on by wartime conditions. Along with other contemporary demographers, he predicted that this trend would soon fade, and fertility would return to the low levels of the 1930s, meaning that little further population growth could be expected in Australia without substantial immigration.

By 1952, with the postwar migration program well underway and the baby boom now evidently established, Borrie convinced the ANU to establish a department of demography, the first university department of demography in the world. In 1957 he was appointed professor. His reputation was such that he was able to attract and retain academic staff who had already made notable contributions to the discipline, including Charles Price, Norma McArthur, George Zubrzycki, and Reg Appleyard. He was also sufficiently far-sighted to predict the contribution that the graduate study of demography could make to population programs in Asia and Africa in the context of rapid growth. From the early 1960s, his department graduated many doctoral scholars from these regions. He was director (1968–73) of the Research School of Social Sciences, and retired emeritus professor in 1978, continuing his association with the department as a visiting fellow. In 1979 he became executive director and secretary (1979–85) of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, having previously served as president (1962–64) of the Social Science Research Council.

The integration of migrants into Australian society had been a major area of study for Borrie in the 1950s and 1960s leading to his 1954 book Italians and Germans in Australia: A Study of Assimilation. Initially, he played an important role in modifying some of the more dogmatic approaches to the assimilation of non-English speaking immigrants that applied in the 1950s. With colleagues, he participated in the gradual shift to the policy of multiculturalism that emerged in the 1970s. The author or co-author of fifteen books and 163 articles and reports, for forty years Borrie occupied a prominent position in research related to Australian and international population policy. He was chairman (1965–68) of the United Nations Population Commission, a member (1974–81) of the Australian Population and Immigration Planning Council, and a founding member (1980) and later patron of the Australian Population Association (APA).

Never far-removed from the policy makers of both major political parties, in 1970 Borrie was appointed to head (1970–78) the National Population Inquiry. His 1978 report fundamentally altered the direction of Australian population planning. It documented the decline in the birth rate that he had long anticipated, and reaffirmed his earlier prediction that a below-replacement level of fertility would persist long into the future. Innovatively, the report also included an analysis of the Indigenous population of Australia, building on the work of the demographer Leonard Smith.

Having been appointed OBE in 1969, Borrie was elevated to CBE in 1979. Honorary doctorates were conferred on him by the University of Tasmania (1975), the University of Sydney (1979), and the ANU (1982). In 1996 he was awarded the laureate of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, one of the highest accolades of the discipline. As a visiting fellow at the ANU, he continued to research, authoring Immigration to New Zealand (1991) and The Demographic Consequences of International Migration (1992). A man of humour, he was well able to poke fun at himself, and his enthusiasm for demography inspired colleagues and students alike, his great strength being ‘the placement and interpretation of statistical material within its social context’ (McDonald 2000, 71). He enjoyed tennis and had a holiday home at Guerilla Bay on the New South Wales south coast, as well as a small sheep farm. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died at Red Hill, Canberra, on 1 January 2000, an auspicious date for a demographer. All who encountered him told of his generous nature and of his scientific capacity as a demographer. The APA had established an annual prize in his honour in 1987.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Archives. AU ANUA 19-, W. D. Borrie staff files
  • Borrie, W. D. Interview by Robin Gollan, 5 November 1982. Transcript. Australian National University Oral History Archive
  • McDonald, Peter. ‘Obituary.’ In Annual Report, 70–72. Canberra: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, 2000
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9498, Papers of W. D. Borrie, 1944–97
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Price, Charles A. ‘Obituary.’ ANU Reporter, 18 February 2000, 8

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter McDonald, 'Borrie, Wilfred David (Mick) (1913–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 13 July 2024.

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