Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kathleen Elizabeth Fitzpatrick (1905–1990)

by Alison Patrick

This article was published:

Kathleen Elizabeth Fitzpatrick (1905-1990), historian, was born on 7 Septem­ber 1905 at Omeo, Victoria, second of four children of Victorian-born parents Henry Arthur Pitt, civil servant, and his wife Gertrude Augusta, née Buxton. The family maintained social contact only with close relatives; Kathleen grew up shy and lacking self-confidence but resolutely feminist. She recalled that her education—at Loreto Convent (Albert Park and Portland), Presentation Con­vent (Windsor) and Lauriston Girls’ School—largely lacked stimulus. At the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1926) she studied English and history. As taught by (Sir) Ernest Scott, history enlarged her imagination and academic ambitions. She also became an editor of the new student newspaper Farrago, and was active in student societies ranging from the Literature to the Melbourne University Labor clubs. Pitt proceeded to the University of Oxford (BA, 1928; MA, 1934). Disaster followed: she felt her fellow-students were snobbish and contemptuous of women, and she miscalculated the effort involved in completing a second degree in two years instead of three. She emerged exhausted, the predicted first-class result reduced to a creditable second. She was forever convinced that this meant that she was no academic. Scott disagreed, and found her a stopgap lectureship at the University of Sydney (1929). There followed a tutorship in English at Melbourne, from which she resigned to marry Brian Fitzpatrick at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on 27 August 1932. The marriage was over by 1935 and they were divorced in 1939. She began a business course at Melbourne Technical School and was soon teaching typing and commercial English there.

In 1938, Kathleen Fitzpatrick returned to tutor English at the university. Then Scott’s successor, the young Professor R. M. Crawford, intervened: in 1939 she was appointed a lecturer in the department of history. As Max Crawford’s close collaborator and trusted deputy, she was promoted to senior lecturer (1942) and associate professor (1948). Fitzpatrick was a watchful, sympathetic teacher with presence, elegance, wit and theatricality. She held her audience firmly, without apparent effort, and moved at a gentle pace suited to her packed audiences of first-year students.

Fitzpatrick undervalued the scholarship implicit in her teaching. For her, the study of seventeenth-century writings was much more than a literary exercise; it encouraged students to discover individual people, their concerns and values. She argued that history dealt with the human condition: any kind of evidence—clothes, manners, climate, land use—was potentially within its frame of reference. Literature was in itself historical evidence, and students should be aware of this. Her underlying theme was the perpetual tension between order and liberty. Passionately liberal, she was horrified by McCarthyism. She told her students that Milton’s Areopagitica had been written to be read aloud. Forty years later, her reading of it was still remembered.

Fitzpatrick carried heavy and varied administrative responsibilities, particularly during Crawford’s extended periods of ill health. In World War II she was president of the Council for Women in War Work. She supported the foundation of University Women’s College (1937), University House (1952) and the university Staff Association (1944). A foundation member (1956) of the Australian Humanities Research Council, she also served (1960-67) on the interim council of the National Library of Australia.

Lack of time and accessible sources limited her publications, but she was also demoralised by a series of apparent false starts. A planned textbook was stillborn when another historian got in first, and her confidence in her generally well-received Sir John Franklin in Tasmania (1957) was ruined by one savage review. In the early 1950s Fitzpatrick was seen as a likely candidate for a second chair in history, but with low self-esteem and a `black Irish pride’, she would not apply.

In 1962, tired, frustrated, and distressed by the impact of an academic dispute on her department, she justified early retirement by her wish to complete a long-cherished study of Henry James. Sadly, this turned out patchy and long-winded. Its rejection by publishers devastated her. A commissioned history of Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne (1975), gave her a new project, and her memoir, Solid Bluestone Foundations (1983)—which she thought lightweight—achieved sustained success. In 1964 she served on a committee to advise the State government on the site for La Trobe University and in 1971-75 she sat on the council of the University of Melbourne. She was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws (1983) by the university and in 1989 was appointed AO.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick died on 27 August 1990 at East Melbourne and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery with Catholic rites. From her estate, sworn for probate at $2,747,031, she left a large bequest to the Baillieu [q.v.7] Library, University of Melbourne, to buy books. Her greatest legacy was one she refused to recognise: the enduring influence of her lectures. Appropriately, an annual lecture is given in her name.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Anderson, An Historian’s Life (2005)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Mar 1943, p 7
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1990, p 20
  • K. Fitzpatrick papers and M. Crawford papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • J. A. La Nauze papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Alison Patrick, 'Fitzpatrick, Kathleen Elizabeth (1905–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 April 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]

Alternative Names
  • Pitt, Kathleen

7 September, 1905
Omeo, Victoria, Australia


27 August, 1990 (aged 84)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.