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Keith Sydney Isles (1902–1977)

by A. J. Hagger

This article was published:

Keith Sydney Isles (1902-1977), economist and university vice-chancellor, was born on 4 August 1902 at Bothwell, Tasmania, second son of Sydney Henry Isles, a labourer who became a farmer, and his wife Margaret Ellen, née Knight. Educated at Hobart High School and the University of Tasmania (B.Com., 1925), Keith was employed by the Department of Education from 1922 and taught at Launceston High School. In 1924 he joined the staff of the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. He studied arts at the University of Adelaide and won the Tinline scholarship for history (1925).

At St Luke's Anglican Church, Jericho, Tasmania, on 4 September 1926 Isles married Irene Frances Clayton, an English-born schoolmistress. They travelled to England where he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1927 and graduated (B.A., 1929; M.A., 1933; M.Sc., 1935) with first-class honours. Gaining a Rockefeller fellowship in 1929, he was admitted as a research student, and was awarded the Wrenbury scholarship (1930) and the Adam Smith prize (1932).

From 1931 Isles lectured in political economy at the University of Edinburgh. During this time he published Wages Policy and the Price Level (London, 1934) and Money and Trade (London, 1935). In 1937 he was appointed to the chair of economics at Swansea University, Wales. He returned to Australia as successor to E. O. G. Shann, professor of economics at the University of Adelaide, in August 1939 and, in collaboration with B. R. Williams, wrote Compulsory Saving (London, 1942). Granted leave from the university in 1942 to become an economic adviser to the wartime Commonwealth Rationing Commission, he was mobilized in the Australian Military Forces in December 1943 and attached to Alf Conlon's Directorate of Research as a temporary lieutenant colonel.

Isles was appointed to the chair of economics at the Queen's University of Belfast, Ireland, in 1945. Of his several books and numerous academic papers, his most substantial contribution was An Economic Survey of Northern Ireland (London, 1957). An extensive investigation undertaken for the British government, it was written in collaboration with Norman Cuthbert, a member of his department at Queen's. In this survey Isles demonstrated his skills and strengths as an applied economist.

In August 1957 he succeeded Professor Torleiv Hytten as vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania. A period of growth saw the introduction of faculties of medicine and agriculture, but was eventually dominated by the turmoil of the Sydney Sparkes Orr case. Having been dismissed as professor of philosophy in March 1956, Orr brought an action against the university. When the Supreme Court of Tasmania gave judgement against him that year, he appealed to the High Court of Australia. The appeal was rejected in May 1957. Unwilling to accept the court decisions as final, Orr and his supporters continued to press the university for a further inquiry.

Even though he had played no part in either the dismissal or the subsequent court hearings, Isles could not avoid becoming involved. In August 1958 he published and distributed a pamphlet—The Dismissal of S. S. Orr by the University of Tasmania—in which he gave his unqualified support to the university's handling of the affair and called for an end to academic pressure on the university. Orr brought actions against him for defamation and libel. Contending with strong academic opposition, including a ban on filling Orr's vacant chair, preoccupied Isles for several years. The defamation actions were withdrawn in 1966 when a settlement between Orr and the university was finally reached. In January 1967 Isles was appointed C.M.G. He retired in December.

He received an honorary LL.D. (1963) from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and an honorary D.Litt. (1968) from the University of Tasmania. At the latter ceremony the university ('a more efficient and happier place than he found it') acknowledged having 'derived enormous benefit from his patience, his wisdom and his selfless dedication'. During 1968 Isles was visiting professor of economics at the New University of Ulster, Belfast, and in the following year received an honorary LL.D. from the Queen's University of Belfast.

Isles belonged to the Tasmanian Club, and listed his recreations as tennis, cricket, golf, motoring and photography. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died on 18 June 1977 at Rose Bay, Hobart, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Davis, Open to Talent (Hob, 1990)
  • Students' Representative Council of Tasmania University Union, Togatus, 26 Nov 1956
  • Mercury (Hobart), 20 June 1929, 15 Nov 1938, 20 June 1977
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Jan 1943, 16 June 1967
  • Nation (Sydney), 23 Sept 1961
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 19 Aug 1964
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 May, 4 June 1965
  • Examiner (Launceston), 2 Jan 1967.

Citation details

A. J. Hagger, 'Isles, Keith Sydney (1902–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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