Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Herbert (Joe) Burton (1900–1983)

by Selwyn Cornish

This article was published:

Herbert (Joe) Burton (1900-1983), economic historian, university administrator and educationist, was born on 29 November 1900 at Chuwar, Queensland, eighth and youngest child of English-born Samuel Edwin Burton, farmer, and his Queensland-born wife Ada, née Pellatt. He was educated at Ipswich Grammar School and the University of Queensland (BA, 1922), where he studied modern languages, resided at St John’s College and played both Rugby Union and League for the university. Selected as Rhodes scholar for Queensland in 1922, he went to Queen’s College, Oxford (BA, 1925; MA, 1929), and gained first-class honours in modern history.

Returning to Australia, Burton taught first at Ipswich Grammar School and then at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. He married Barbara McLennan, a kindergarten teacher, on 6 January 1928 at St Mary’s Church of England, Kangaroo Point, Queensland. Barbara called him Joe, the name by which he came to be universally known. In 1930 he was appointed senior lecturer in economic history at the University of Melbourne. Five years later he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study French economic history and thought. He published papers on the Australian economy, immigration and population. Promoted to associate-professor in 1946, he was head (1944-48) of the department of economic history. He accepted administrative responsibilities with alacrity, becoming chairman (1936-48) of the board of studies in public administration, sub-dean (1943-48) of the faculty of economics and commerce, chairman (1946-48) of the Union board of management, and academic staff representative (1947-48) on the council. Beyond the university, he served as foundation president (1936-40) of the (Australian) Council for Civil Liberties, president (1936 and 1947) of the Victorian branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, and vice-president of the Victorian branch of the Australian League of Nations Union.

In November 1948 Burton was appointed inaugural principal and first professor (the chair was in economic history) at the Canberra University College, established in 1929 as a college of the University of Melbourne. Before taking the post he was awarded a Carnegie fellowship, to investigate the operations of small universities in North America and Britain. As principal, he was responsible for the transformation of the CUC—created to provide tertiary studies for public servants enrolled part time and dependent on part-time lecturers—into an institution of higher education respected throughout the nation for the quality of its staff and students. He recruited Manning Clark (history), Fin Crisp (political science), H. W. Arndt (economics) and A. D. Hope (English). His leadership facilitated the amalgamation (1960) of the CUC and the Australian National University. He was appointed principal of the School of General Studies, ANU. As well as creating national undergraduate scholarships to attract the nation’s top school leavers to the ANU, he built residential accommodation for its many interstate students.

After retirement in 1965, Burton served as the chairman of the committee of inquiry into the need for a college of advanced education in the Australian Capital Territory. This committee provided the blueprint for the Canberra CAE, later the University of Canberra, and for other colleges of advanced education in Australia. In 1977 he was made an honorary college fellow of the CCAE. He was also a councillor (1967-81) of the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and chairman (1969-80) of the Design and Siting Review Committee of Canberra. As secretary (1967-71) of the Social Science Research Council of Australia, he had guided its conversion into the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, of which he was the executive director (1971-73). As a member (1945) of the former, he automatically became a fellow of the latter.

Appointed CBE in 1962, and emeritus professor of the ANU on retirement, Burton was awarded honorary doctorates of laws by the University of Queensland (1967) and the ANU (1983), and an honorary doctorate of commerce (1983) by the University of Melbourne. A fellow (1964) of the Australian College of Education, he was an honorary life member (1971, honorary fellow from 1978) of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies. He had served on the editorial board of the Australian Rhodes Review and was a member of the Australian Round Table and the Commonwealth Club. His recreations included tennis, golf and trout fishing.

Burton was of medium height and stocky physique, with short, thick hair that turned grey prematurely. He was affectionate, sincere, tolerant and totally unpretentious. The citation for the honorary degree from the ANU referred to him as `a good and gentle Australian’. A colleague, J. D. B. Miller, said that Burton’s idea of a university was less austere than Cardinal Newman’s, being `centred more on personal contact than on the achievement of high discovery’. He was enthusiastic about the qualities of the young, and eager to seek out their views and ambitions. As an economic historian, he was an uncompromising advocate of economic growth, contending in a commencement ceremony address at the CUC in 1949 that `learning and the discovery of new knowledge flourish most in countries where economic progress is taking place, and in their periods of most rapid economic progress’.

Predeceased by his wife (d.1981), Burton died on 24 July 1983 at Southport, Queensland, while visiting relatives and friends, and was cremated. Two sons, born prematurely, had died soon after their birth. Joe bequeathed his estate in equal shares to Canberra Grammar School and Burton Hall, ANU, which had been named after him. The University of Canberra established the Burton medal, an award for undergraduates, in his honour. A portrait by Louis Kahan hangs in the library of Burton and Garran halls.

Select Bibliography

  • Herbert `Joe’ Burton, 1900-1983 (1984)
  • S. G. Foster and M. M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University 1946-1996 (1996)
  • Canberra Times, 30 July 1983, p 8
  • ANU Reporter, 12 Aug 1983, p 2
  • I. Hamilton, taped interview with Herbert Burton (1982, National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Selwyn Cornish, 'Burton, Herbert (Joe) (1900–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 July 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, 1900
Chuwar, Queensland, Australia


24 July, 1983 (aged 82)
Southport, Queensland, Australia

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