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Andrew John La Nauze (1911–1990)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published:

Andrew John La Nauze (1911-1990), historian, was born on 9 June 1911 at Boulder, Western Australia, first child of Mauritius-born Charles Andrew La Nauze, bank teller, and his Western Australian-born wife Lily Rose, née Atkins.  Following his father’s death at Gallipoli in June 1915, his mother moved with her two young children to South Perth; she supported them by teaching and reporting women’s sport for the West Australian.

First educated at South Perth Public School, John showed an aptitude for his lessons.  He came second in the examinations for entrance to Perth Modern School and there won the State exhibitions for English and history, along with a bursary to support his studies at the University of Western Australia (BA, 1932).  Majoring in English, he formed a lasting friendship with the professor, (Sir) Walter Murdoch, who lived nearby.  La Nauze adopted the same deadpan delivery as the English lecturer, Frederick Sinclaire, who demonstrated to him the power of language; another South Perth neighbour, Edward Shann, persuaded him to undertake a second major in economics.  A keen tennis player, he was chosen as a Rhodes scholar in 1931.  He entered Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1934; MA, 1938), and gained first-class honours in the degree of philosophy, politics and economics.

Shann, who visited La Nauze in 1933, took a keen interest in his progress and encouraged him at times of self-doubt, as he tackled the more technical aspects of economics.  Performing well in the ancillary papers on politics and philosophy, La Nauze excelled in his special paper on the history of economics; he later explained that he was more interested in Adam Smith than in the wealth of nations.  In 1935 he was recruited as assistant-lecturer in economics to the University of Adelaide, where his mentor held the chair.  Shann’s fatal plunge from a study window four months later shook his young assistant—for La Nauze was convinced it was suicide; he then assisted the family and took on most of Shann’s teaching duties.  The solicitous professor of history and political science, G. V. Portus, intervened with the parsimonious vice-chancellor, Sir William Mitchell, insisting that, 'you can’t do this. You’ll kill the boy'.  But until a new professor was appointed in 1939, the young lecturer was in charge of economics.

On 27 January 1937 at St Saviour’s Church of England, Glen Osmond, La Nauze married Barbara Burton Cleland, a mathematics graduate, daughter of (Sir) John Cleland.  Like his father-in-law, La Nauze held strong views; writing in the 1940s on the inequality of educational opportunity in South Australia, he expressed impatience with the Adelaide establishment.  His wife’s calm demeanour and gentle irony, however, softened the sharper edges of a fastidious scholar who was impatient of cant.

Appointed in 1940 as senior lecturer in economics at the University of Sydney, La Nauze became a reader in economic history in 1946.  The dean of economics, R. C. Mills, wanted to develop the history of economic theory.  La Nauze had published on Adam Smith in Economic Record (1937) and went on to explore the work in Australia of the English economist W. S. Jevons, and the local contributions of W. E. Hearn and David Syme.  This research was brought together in his first book, Political Economy in Australia (1949).  He obtained an Australian National University research fellowship in 1947-48 and pursued a history of the Australian tariff; although uncompleted, his work yielded a number of articles.

In 1949 La Nauze accepted the chair of economic history, University of Melbourne.  There he was drawn into the work of the history department, partly through friendship with R. M. Crawford and partly because of their shared interest in Alfred Deakin.  Although he was an active member of the faculty of economics and commerce, and dean in 1955, La Nauze found the increasingly mathematical orientation of economics uncongenial:  'I’m not now an economist, though I know what the chaps are getting at', he told Sir Keith Hancock in 1953, when arranging a Carnegie research fellowship at Hancock’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.  Persuaded by Crawford to apply for the inaugural (Sir) Ernest Scott chair of history, he was appointed in 1956.  Associate-professor Kathleen Fitzpatrick had assured him that she would not apply for the chair; his respect for her prior claim earned her lasting esteem.  It was an awkward transition, however, because he had been a member of the original selection committee and the reluctant recipient of confidences from Manning Clark, desperate to return to Melbourne from Canberra; this episode created a lasting breach between the two men.

La Nauze’s tenure of the second chair in history coincided with a breakdown in Crawford’s health and imposed heavy administrative duties on him.  He also assumed responsibility for the biography of Deakin.  After the two men collaborated in editing an early memoir, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881 (1957), La Nauze wrote The Hopetoun Blunder (1957), delivered the 1958 John Murtagh Macrossan lectures on Deakin and prepared a scholarly edition of The Federal Story (1963).  He interrupted his visiting fellowship (1961-62) at St John’s College, Cambridge, to relieve Crawford as head of department after his friend’s disastrous intervention in a dispute between staff in the department of social studies, when Crawford made a public allegation of communist conspiracy.  Fitzpatrick wrote to La Nauze from her leave in Europe that she shared his 'feeling of rage'.  La Nauze refrained from censure and, in a letter to Hancock, explained simply that he had returned 'partly for the sake of morale, partly because there is much to do'.

In 1961, in anticipation of his own retirement, Hancock urged La Nauze to move to the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences.  La Nauze was by no means sure of the attractions of Canberra’s academic life:  'It is not an Institute of Advanced Studies, comprised only of scholars of undoubted reputation', for 'there are too many second-class, though perhaps worthy, people around'.  He valued his Melbourne colleagues, who shared his interests, and appreciated a raillery that daunted others.  In 1965 he published Alfred Deakin, for which the University of Melbourne awarded him a Litt.D.; but the effort of completing the book while attending to other duties impelled him to seek relief.  His youngest child was completing secondary school, and he applied for and was appointed in 1966 to the research chair vacated by Hancock.

At the RSSS La Nauze was able to undertake his study of The Making of the Australian Constitution (1972).  It worked on a wide canvas and was notable for its meticulous attention to a large body of evidence on the Federal deliberations, its comprehensive grasp of a long and complex process, its lucid analysis and its precision of exposition.  More than one commentator has described it as 'historians’ history'; La Nauze later wrote a number of more specialised pieces.

As head of department La Nauze encouraged colleagues working in modern British and Australian history, supervised postgraduates and chaired (1966-77) the editorial board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography; he avoided other committees.  Less involved in Australian academic affairs than in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was regularly consulted on professorial appointments, he did not participate in the collaborative and interdisciplinary projects that Hancock had encouraged; his was a traditional model of scholarship and he was ill at ease with the more fluid exchanges and practices in the Coombs building.

Taking advantage of the ANU’s liberal leave provision, La Nauze held visiting fellowships at All Souls, Oxford (1968-69), and at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada (1973).  A member from 1948 of the Social Science Research Council of Australia, in 1954 he turned to its counterpart, the Australian Humanities Research Council; but, in a rare difference with Crawford, opposed its elevation into the Australian Academy of the Humanities (of which he was a foundation fellow in 1969) as `pretentious’.  Retiring in 1976, he published a graceful biographical memoir, Walter Murdoch (1977).  He was the first professor (1978) of Australian studies at Harvard University, United States of America.  In 1981 Murdoch University conferred on him an honorary D.Litt.

Of medium height and spare build, La Nauze was formidably well read.  The nickname 'Jack the Knife’ caught his contempt for shoddy work, and his cutting remarks at seminars were not always appreciated; but he was generous with graduate students and closer colleagues.  His preparation of Margaret Kiddle’s Men of Yesterday (1961) for posthumous publication was just one example of a selflessness concealed by austere perfectionism.  Survived by his wife and their three sons and daughter, he died on 20 August 1990 in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Academy of the Humanities, Proceedings, 1990, p 53
  • Canberra Times, 26 August 1990, p 2
  • ANU Reporter, 14 September 1990, p 2
  • La Nauze papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information
  • H. Irving and S. Macintyre, 'Introduction', in J. A. La Nauze, No Ordinary Act, 2001
  • Historical Studies, vol 17, no 67, 1976, p 132
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1990, p 73

View the list of ADB entries written by Andrew John La Nauze

View the list of obituaries written by Andrew John La Nauze

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'La Nauze, Andrew John (1911–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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