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Frederick Henry George (Fred) Gruen (1921–1997)

by Bruce Chapman

This article was published online in 2023

Frederick Gruen, 1985

Frederick Gruen, 1985

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-489

Frederick Henry George Gruen (1921–1997), economist and government advisor, was born Fritz Heinz Georg Grün on 14 June 1921 in Vienna, only child of Austrian-born Jewish parents Ewald Willi Grün, small businessman, and his wife Marie Sara, née Zwack. Fred’s father pursued several unsuccessful business ventures including umbrella manufacturing. His parents separated during the Depression, leaving Fred’s maternal grandmother responsible for his early education. Temperamentally ill-suited to the competitive Akademisches Gymnasium, he attended provincial boarding schools. In 1936 he inherited about £200 from his mother’s uncle in London, which his family used to fund further education at Herne Bay College, Kent, England (1937–38). The following year he received news of his father’s death from lung cancer in Vienna. A victim of the Holocaust, his mother later died in Poland’s Łódź Ghetto in March 1942. In July 1940 he became subject to World War II regulations under which aliens considered risks were deported, in his case aboard HMT Dunera. When the ship berthed at Sydney in September 1940, approximately two thousand of its passengers were transferred to the internment camp at Hay, New South Wales. The next year he gained admission to the University of Melbourne (BA, 1945) to study economics and philosophy and was able to complete his first-year examinations while still interned.

Released in March 1942, Gruen enlisted on 8 April at Caulfield, Victoria, as a private in the 8th Labour (later Employment) Company, Citizen Military Forces. He was sent to Camp Pell, Melbourne, in August 1943, where he continued studying while manning an emergency telephone system. Later that year he was relocated to Tocumwal, New South Wales, to work as a labourer lugging railway goods. In June 1945 he was transferred to the Australian Army Education Service and became a naturalised citizen the following month. Following Japan’s surrender, he was sent to Lae, New Guinea, where he helped provide educational services to servicemen awaiting repatriation. Promoted to sergeant in October, he returned to Australia four months later and was discharged on 14 February 1946.

After graduating in absentia from the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1947), on 24 May 1947 Gruen married an English-born librarian, Ann Margaret Darvall, at All Saints Anglican Church, Brisbane. He gained employment in the Division of Marketing and Agricultural Economics, New South Wales Department of Agriculture (1947–59), where he pursued his research interests in agricultural economics. Travelling to the United States of America in 1949 to further specialise, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin (MSc, 1950) and after illness prevented him from completing a thesis for a doctorate, the University of Chicago (MA, 1951). He returned to DMAE in 1951 and became its acting head in 1958, imbuing the organisation with a critical intellectualism. After a part-time lectureship in agricultural economics at the University of Sydney (1958–59), in 1959 he was appointed a senior research fellow at the Australian National University (ANU), before becoming chair of agricultural economics at Monash University (1964–72), where he worked closely with Alan Powell. Championing students at Monash during a time of political unrest, he clashed with some colleagues. Accordingly in 1972 he accepted ‘with alacrity’ (Gruen 1998, 14) the role of chair and head of the economics department in the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU, where he remained until after his retirement in 1986. The family often resided on farming properties located not far from these universities, an arrangement he thought combined the best of rural and urban living.

A major figure in Australian agricultural economics, Gruen wrote theoretical papers in the field and featured prominently in 1960s debates concerning the protection of the dairy industry, and government support for the reserve price scheme for wool. Arguably his most enduring theoretical contribution was his article, co-authored with Max Corden, that explained how tariffs on manufactures worsened terms of trade. Previously he had written that such tariffs also imposed higher input prices for agricultural production. He maintained a lifelong interest in studying the unintended effects of tariffs on economic activities beyond those they were designed to protect.

In 1973 Gruen was appointed part-time consultant to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. As a member of an advisory committee, Gruen successfully advocated a tariff cut, which was implemented in July at the level of 25 per cent across the board. The Australian economics profession strongly approved the policy initiative, itself a major departure from Labor’s policy tradition of industry protection, and the change pleased him greatly. In 1979 he persuaded the ANU to establish the Centre for Economic Policy Research, furthering his and other economists’ interest in applying economics to public policy. It was described in 1986 by the economics journalist Ross Gittins as ‘by far the most productive of the many university centres of applied research’ (1986, 38).

Increasingly active in public policy making, in 1984 Gruen chaired a review panel that recommended an assets test on welfare payments, which was subsequently implemented by the Hawke government. This greatly impacted governments’ ability to assist those most in need, and he was justifiably proud of his contribution. That same year, he was appointed chairman of the Indicative Planning Council for the Housing Industry (1984–87). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s his research was motivated by considering the significance of policy decisions for society, such as political economy analysis of income policies and distribution, the formation of budgets, macroeconomic management, and poverty. Thoughtful, balanced, and accessible, his work helped shape Australian policy debate. His academic influence extended beyond his publications to his leading and supervising innovative research initiatives, including the landmark three-volume Surveys of Australian Economics (1978–83), and the esteemed Brookings Institution conference and proceedings, The Australian Economy: A View from the North (1984).

Adopting several leadership roles, Gruen became president of the Australian Agricultural Economics Society (1961–62), president (1970) of the Victorian branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, and later national president (1984–86). He was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 1970 and served as its president (1975–78). In 1986 he was appointed AO and in 1997 received the Distinguished Fellowship award of the Economic Society of Australia.

Gruen was compassionate in all areas of his work. His concern for those in economic strife made him ‘an ideal Alfred Marshall-type economist: he had both a cool head and a warm heart’ (Chapman 1998, 190). With immaculate style, civility, and charisma, he was inclusive yet independent; direct at the same time as he was charming; supportive, with no deference; and confident without vanity. He possessed a wry wit and was whimsical; invariably and benignly amused about nothing in particular. A fine scholar, his leadership, mentorship, institution-building capacities, and good sense inspired colleagues and students. His policy work illustrated the importance of the multidimensional nature of inquiry. As Max Corden observed, Gruen’s contributions and papers resembled one-man mini-royal commissions through reference to economic principles, data, and the institutional context. His contributions to policy development were informed by the practical strengths of economic theory and statistical analysis, as well as by common sense. He reflected that the nature of his inquiry was ‘to shed more light on the changing economic environment in Australia and how policy could best respond to the changed conditions’ (Gruen 1998, 18).

Survived by his wife and their two sons, David and Nicholas (who became prominent economists), Gruen died on 29 October 1997 in John James Memorial Hospital, Canberra. Following his death, the ANU announced the endowment of a chair in economic policy in his name. His endowment to the university established a series of annual lectures to be delivered by distinguished researchers in the field of economic and welfare policy. A portrait by Erwin Fabian is held by the university.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Caves, Richard E., and Lawrence B. Krause, eds. The Australian Economy: A View from the North. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1984
  • Chapman, Bruce. ‘F.H.G. Gruen: 1921–97.’ Economic Record 74, no. 225 (1998): 186–93
  • Corden, Max. ‘Dunera Boy Helped Shape Nation.’ Australian, 31 October 1997, 9
  • Dillon, John L., and Alan A. Powell. ‘Obituary: Fred George Gruen 1921–1997.’ Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 42, no. 2 (1998): 191–96
  • Gittins, Ross. ‘A Most Useful Man Steps Down.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 1986, 38
  • Gregory, Bob, David Gruen, Peter Karmel, Margaret Weeden, Henry Lippmann, Bruce Chapman, and Nicholas Gruen. ‘A Gathering to Celebrate the Life of Fred Gruen: 14 June 1921 to 29 October 1997. University House ANU, 2 November 1997.’ Accessed 28 September 2012. Copy held on ADB file
  • Gruen, F. H. Surveys of Australian Economics. 3 vols. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin Australia, 1978–83
  • Gruen, F. H., and W. M. Corden. ‘A Tariff That Worsens the Terms of Trade.’ In Studies in International Economics: Monash Conference Papers, edited by I. A. McDougall and R. H. Snape, 55–58. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1970
  • Gruen, Fred. ‘A Short Autobiography.’ In Fred Gruen: A Celebration of His Life, 1–22. Canberra: Australian National University, 1998
  • Inglis, Ken, Bill Gammage, Seumas Spark, and Jay Winter with Carol Bunyan. Dunera Lives. Vol. 2, Profiles. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2020
  • Keynes, John M. ‘Alfred Marshall, 1842–1924.’ Economic Journal 34, no. 135 (1924): 311–72.

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Citation details

Bruce Chapman, 'Gruen, Frederick Henry George (Fred) (1921–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 26 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frederick Gruen, 1985

Frederick Gruen, 1985

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-489

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Grün, Fritz Heinz Georg

14 June, 1921
Vienna, Austria


29 October, 1997 (aged 76)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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