Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Henderson, Ronald Frank (1917–1994)

by Peter Sheehan

This article was published:

Ronald Frank Henderson (1917–1994), economist and social reformer, was born on 27 May 1917 at Dundee, Scotland, only child of Charles Frederick Henderson, jute manufacturer, and his Australian-born wife Janet Alice Millar, née Steel. The Henderson family owned and managed a spinning and weaving factory in Dundee and were active in financial investments. His mother was born in Melbourne and he visited Australia three times as a child. Educated at home by a governess until the age of nine, Ronald then boarded at the Cargilfield School near Edinburgh and, from the age of twelve, at Trinity College, Glenalmond, an Anglican school in the Perthshire Hills. His father gave serious thought to ‘the condition of the people’ (Ironmonger and Perkins 1995, 284), devoting both time and money to charitable organisations such as the Dundee Royal Infirmary, and Ronald followed in this tradition of philanthropy.

In 1935 Henderson entered Clare College, Cambridge (MA, 1938), to study economics. Supervised by Maurice Dobb, and for a term in his final year by Joan Robinson, he obtained first-class honours in each of his undergraduate years. He was greatly affected by the social work he undertook during university vacations, notably in Wales where he lived for a while with an unemployed family and learned to use a pick and shovel. Much later he recalled that he had seen much worse poverty in Britain than he ever saw in Australia. During his first year as a research student at Cambridge (1938–39), Henderson was supervised by John Maynard (Baron) Keynes, but World War II interrupted his career. Joining the Royal Artillery in 1939, he worked for a year in the Dundee-based investment company Alliance Trust until he was called up. He then served as an officer in the Royal Artillery and from January 1945 in the infantry in the Black Watch, rising to the rank of captain.

Returning to Cambridge in 1946, Henderson resumed his doctoral studies (PhD, 1949) under the supervision of (Sir) Dennis Robertson. The resulting book, The New Issue Market and the Finance of Industry (1951), was a pioneering study of emerging financial institutions. In 1946 he was elected a fellow of Corpus Christi College, and in 1948 he became a university lecturer and the treasurer of the college. He was successful in both teaching and financial management and continued his research on company finance and the United Kingdom’s monetary system, co-editing (with Brian Tew) and authoring three chapters of Studies in Company Finance (1959).

On 12 August 1950 at the Armadale Presbyterian Church, Melbourne, Henderson had married his cousin Frances Mary Isabel Steel, a nurse. The first of the couple’s three children died in infancy. Henderson twice travelled to Australia on sabbatical, as a visiting fellow (1953–54) at the Australian National University and as a guest of the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1960. During the latter visit, economists at the University of Melbourne sought his advice on the need for independent research in economic policy in Australia. At their request, he wrote a typically brief, two-page memorandum, drawing on his knowledge of the department of applied economic research at Cambridge.

In 1962 the Ritchie professor of economic research at the University of Melbourne, Richard (Dick) Downing, persuaded the university to set up an Institute of Applied Economic Research (later Economic and Social Research), with Henderson as its founding director. Arriving in December, Henderson recruited two former students, John Rose and Peter Stubbs, who led work on Australian financial markets, and research and innovation, respectively. Under Henderson’s firm but tolerant leadership for nearly two decades, the Melbourne Institute (as it was widely known) grew to a staff of fifty and was to have a major transformative impact on Australian life.

Henderson was elected to the Social Science Research Council (later the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia) in 1964. He was granted a personal chair at the University of Melbourne in 1966, the year he commenced, with colleagues, the first major attempt to measure poverty in Australia. The results, published in People in Poverty: A Melbourne Survey (1970), aroused the national conscience, and led the McMahon government to establish the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty in 1972, with Henderson as chairman. Presenting its first (and main) report in 1975, the commission sought to establish the minimum income required for an adequate but austere standard of living, defining what became known as the Henderson Poverty Line. Many of the commission’s findings and recommendations were overlooked in what Henderson later described as a ‘conspiracy of silence’ (McGirr 1995, 36).

In 1968 two of Henderson’s doctoral students, Richard (Dick) Scotton and John Deeble, produced a blueprint for a universal health care system, which was implemented by the Whitlam government in 1975 as Medibank and extended by the Hawke government as Medicare in 1984. From 1968 the Melbourne Institute published Australian Economic Review, which provided independent economic forecasts. Henderson’s interest in corporate finance was reflected in the work of Rose with Federal governments of both political persuasions, which reshaped corporate legislation in Australia. Henderson and the institute also provided intellectual foundations for the Prices and Incomes Accord, which underpinned Australian economic policy under Labor governments from 1983 to 1996.

After a period of remarkable achievement, Henderson retired from the institute in 1979, but continued to be active, especially in social policy with the Victorian Council of Social Service and the Brotherhood of St Laurence. He left a powerful intellectual legacy through his key characteristics: a love of discussion and an ability to go to the heart of important matters; a broad perspective, ranging from issues of financial governance and macroeconomics to social issues; and a deep commitment to both economic efficiency and social justice. He was appointed CMG in 1976 and AO in 1988.

While wealthy, Henderson lived simply and with devotion to his family, the Uniting Church, gardening, and golf, and above all to the welfare of the whole community. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1985, and again in 1991. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died at Toorak on 28 December 1994 and was cremated. Following his death the University of Melbourne created the Ronald Henderson chair at the Melbourne Institute, and a foundation in his name that supports applied social and economic research among younger specialists.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Faber, Thomas Erle. ‘Ronald Frank Henderson: 27 May 1917–28 December 1994.’The Corpus Letter 74 (Michaelmas 1995): 14–21
  • Ironmonger, Duncan, and Jim Perkins. ‘Ronald Frank Henderson 1917–1994.’ Economic Record 71, no. 214 (1995): 284–90
  • Larkin, John. ‘A Man of Poverty Takes Stock.’ Age (Melbourne), 12 March 1979, 11
  • McCaughey, Jean, and Davis McCaughey. Ronald Frank Henderson 1917–1994: A Tribute. Melbourne, Vic.: Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, 1997
  • McGirr, Michael. ‘Ronald Frank Henderson, 1917–1994.’ Eureka Street, March 1995, 36
  • Nieuwenhuysen, John. ‘Ronald Henderson: An Appreciation.’ In Australian Poverty: Then and Now, edited by Ruth Fincher and John Nieuwenhuysen, xii–xvi. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1998
  • Saunders, Peter, ed. Revisiting Henderson: Poverty, Social Security and Basic Income. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2019
  • Sheehan, P., B. Grewal, and M. Kumnick, eds. Dialogues on Australia’s Future: In Honour of the Late Professor Ronald Henderson. Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, 1996

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Sheehan, 'Henderson, Ronald Frank (1917–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/henderson-ronald-frank-29836/text36933, published online 2020, accessed online 23 October 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021