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Norman Denholm Harper (1906–1986)

by Allan Johnston

This article was published:

Norman Denholm Harper (1906-1986), historian and educator, was born on 27 April 1906 at Subiaco, Perth, son of Victorian-born parents Edward Denholm Harper, ware-houseman, and his wife Jessie, née Finlay. After the family’s return to Victoria, Norman was educated at Melbourne High School and, following his graduation from the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1927; Dip.Ed., 1928; MA, 1929; B.Ed., 1938) with the Dwight prize in history and political science, and a Wyselaskie scholarship, he returned to the school as senior history master (1927-39). He combined this teaching with part-time appointments in the university’s history department until 1939, when he secured a full-time lectureship. On 17 January 1934 at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Elsternwick, he married Gladys Agnes Mills, a teacher.

Harper was a demanding but supportive lecturer, teaching most subjects offered in the department. Promoted to senior lecturer in 1943 and associate professor in 1955, he established the first continuing course in American history at an Australian university in 1948. He was a self-taught Americanist, his approach informed by undergraduate training in sociology as well as history, and encompassing the spread of settlement, labour and race relations, and culture conflict. Internationally known for his essays on Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, Harper sought in America’s westward expansion themes that offered some analogy with Australia’s past. In 1966 he was appointed to a personal chair in American history; his major work, Great and Powerful Friend: A Study of Australian-American Relations between 1900 and 1975, was published posthumously in 1987.

Dedicated to advancing the teaching of history at all levels, Harper fostered links between teachers and universities throughout his career. He chaired matriculation syllabus and examining committees. Several of his books were written for a school readership, and generations of Australian children were introduced to Asia and the Americas through Our Pacific Neighbours (1953), written with George Browne. A president (1953-59) of the Historical Association of Victoria, he was the driving force behind an annual `safari’ that brought university lecturers to senior secondary school audiences throughout rural Victoria. In 1974-81 an annual lecture in his name was given at Swan Hill High School. He maintained a close association with Melbourne High School as a member (1941-71) of the advisory council and as president (1936-51) of the Old Boys’ Association. Admitted a fellow (1968) of the Australian College of Education, he was appointed OBE in 1977.

Harper also pioneered the study of international affairs, through scholarship and public commentary, over more than forty years. A tireless advocate for greater understanding of Australia’s Asian neighbours, he promoted educational programs such as the Colombo Plan and Fulbright scheme. With Gordon Greenwood, he edited four volumes of Australia in World Affairs, covering the period 1950-70, and from 1954 was a member of the Melbourne Round Table group. A regular adviser to the Department of External Affairs, he frequently interrupted classes with a polite request that students leave his study because `the Minister’ or `the Department’ was on the telephone. In addition to representing Australia at many international conferences, he held several visiting fellowships and professorships. As president (1955-65) of the Victorian branch of the United Nations Association, he supported an expanded role for the UN. He was a member of the Australian delegation to its Twenty-Third General Session in 1968.

The extent of Harper’s extramural activity intrigued some colleagues: it included the posts of Victorian branch president (1954-55), Commonwealth research chairman (1961-65) and president (1965-70) of the Australian Institute of International Affairs; service on many committees of the Social Science Research Council of Australia (Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia after 1971), to which he had been elected in 1959; and membership of the council of the University of Melbourne (1955-66). Founding president (1964-68) of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association, he convened seven of its biennial conferences and edited their proceedings. A stickler for rules as a means to ensure balance and consistency, Harper was not beyond using them to extract the result he wanted on a matter of policy or the election of his preferred candidates. He derived great satisfaction from his responsibilities, and from the prominence that came with them.

An avid baseball player and athlete in his youth (awarded a university Blue in 1927), Harper was, in later years, stout and florid but distinguished in appearance—an image complementing the avuncular role he adopted with junior colleagues and favoured students. Childless, he delighted in the careers of those he published first in conference proceedings or assisted to undertake postgraduate study in the United States. Norman Harper became emeritus professor on his retirement in 1972. Survived by his wife, he died on 14 October 1986 at Kew, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol 5, no 2, 1986, p 1
  • Historical Studies, vol 22, no 88, 1987, p 494
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1986-87, p 52
  • Harper papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Allan Johnston, 'Harper, Norman Denholm (1906–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 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

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