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Paul Francis Bourke (1938–1999)

by Douglas B. Craig

This article was published online in 2023

Paul Bourke, by Stuart Hay, 1987

Paul Bourke, by Stuart Hay, 1987

ANU Archives, ANUA 579-465

Paul Francis Bourke (1938–1999), historian and university administrator, was born on 6 July 1938 at St Arnaud, Victoria, son of William Francis Bourke, bank manager, and his wife Mary Stella, née McKenna, piano teacher. Both were of Irish Catholic descent, and Paul attended St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, and St Kevin’s College, Toorak. Not yet seventeen, he enrolled at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1959) in 1955. In 1959 he won an Archbishop Mannix travelling scholarship to undertake graduate study in history in the United States of America. At Melbourne he also met Helen Jessie Prideaux, herself a talented history student. Paul and Helen married on 27 August 1960 at Newman College Chapel, before travelling to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (PhD, 1966). Their first child, Philippa, was born in 1962, followed by Stephanie in 1965 and Paul in 1967.

Bourke’s time at Madison was the formative experience of his academic life. He was supervised by Merle Curti, a leader in United States intellectual history and of the burgeoning field of community studies informed by quantitative research. After brief periods lecturing in American history at the universities of Wisconsin and Melbourne, in 1968 he was appointed—aged twenty-nine—as foundation professor in American studies at Flinders University in Adelaide. There he created an innovative interdisciplinary program. In a succession of articles published in prominent American journals in the 1970s he analysed the socio-political thought of James Madison, Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey. These contributions were influential, and they marked him as a wide-ranging and original historian with a sharp eye for his subjects’ historical significance. He was elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1977.

With Donald DeBats, his colleague in American studies at Flinders, Bourke’s research evolved in another direction during the 1980s. He now focused on Washington County in Oregon and its hitherto unexplored poll books, which recorded individuals’ votes in a succession of elections in the mid-nineteenth century. In so doing the pair bridged the gap between aggregated voting data and individuals’ voting choices. The capstone of this project was Washington County: Politics and Community in Antebellum America, published in 1995. Bourke and DeBats’s book was lauded as a major intervention in debates over the roles of community formation, partisanship, and party realignment in the United States in the years preceding the Civil War.

In 1985 Bourke was appointed director of the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) at the Australian National University (ANU). He was in his element. Unafraid of vigorous debate but determined to arrive at decisions, he was an effective chair and university policy-maker. He balanced his robust style with conviviality and ready wit. Bruised opponents sometimes accused him of Machiavellian tactics and motives, but he would assure them that, if necessary, he would stab them in the stomach but not in the back. His colleague Philip Pettit recalled a characteristic quote: ‘As Dr Freud explains, my friend, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’ (Pettit 1999). Intensely proud of the Collingwood Football Club, he had been athletic when young. He always loved music and he entertained innumerable conference dinners and family celebrations with his fine tenor voice. Throughout his adult life he was a respectful, but not observant, Catholic.

During the late 1980s Bourke began the third, and most influential, phase of his scholarly career. Aware of the ANU’s privileged position within the Australian university sector, which saw its Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) receive non-competitive Federal funding without a requirement to teach undergraduate students, he was concerned that tightening education budgets and other universities’ increased research output made this component of the ANU vulnerable. Already attuned to quantitative research through his work on Washington County, and in collaboration with his ANU colleague Linda Butler, he analysed the bibliometric performance of RSSS. This undertaking involved the collection and interpretation of citations of works produced by RSSS scholars and comparing these data to citations of publications produced by researchers in other Australian universities. He later expanded his bibliometric work to survey the whole IAS, and then other Australian and overseas universities that sought similar analysis. By the middle of the 1990s his and Butler’s research evaluation and policy project enjoyed national and international prominence. He was gratified that RSSS and the IAS performed well in these analyses, but he was careful to point out the limits of quantitative measurement of scholarly endeavour. Citation surveys were better at measuring the impact of articles and papers than that of books, and so were more useful in the physical and social sciences than in book-focused fields such as the humanities.

Following his term as director of RSSS, from 1992 Bourke was a professor of history. Although he was disappointed not to become vice-chancellor of the ANU in 1994, his national prominence and influence grew during the decade. He served as president of the Australian Historical Association in 1993 and 1994 and of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia between 1993 and 1997, and he was pivotal in establishing the National Academies Forum (later the Australian Council of Learned Academies) in 1995. Between 1995 and 1997 he served as the forum’s inaugural president. In these roles he established himself as one of the most prominent and influential figures of his generation in Australian academic life. Flinders (1988) and La Trobe (1997) universities awarded him honorary doctorates of letters. He died unexpectedly of heart failure on 7 June 1999, a month before his 61st birthday, while visiting the University of Otago at Dunedin, New Zealand. His wife and their three children survived him. The Paul Bourke awards for early career researchers, and an annual lecture, were established by the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Dare, Robert. ‘Historian Gauged Impact of Research.’ Australian, 7 July 1999, 14
  • Foster, S. G., and Margaret M. Varghese. The Making of the Australian National University 1946–1996. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1996
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc00.260, Papers of Paul Bourke, circa 1954–circa 1998
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pettit, Philip. Eulogy for Paul Bourke given at Newman College Chapel. Unpublished manuscript, 1999. Copy held on ADB file
  • Smith, Barry, and Pat Jalland. ‘Brilliant Historian and Decisive Administrator.’ ANU Reporter, 16 June 1999, 2

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Douglas B. Craig, 'Bourke, Paul Francis (1938–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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