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Douglas Henry (Doug) Pike (1908–1974)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Douglas Pike, 1960s

Douglas Pike, 1960s

photo supplied by his family

Douglas Henry (Doug) Pike (1908-1974), station worker, clergyman, historian and editor, was born on 3 November 1908 at Tuhshan (Dushan), Kweichow (Guizhou), China, second of five children of Douglas Fowler Pike and his wife Louisa, née Boulter, Australian-born Baptist missionaries with the China Inland Mission. Young Douglas attended the Boys' Collegiate School, run by members of the mission at Chefoo (Yantai). He and his elder sister Allison accompanied their parents who took leave in Australia in 1924. Young Doug remained in Melbourne to complete his education. When her husband was killed by bandits in Kweichow in September 1929, Louisa continued her missionary work until her retirement in 1944.

While employed as a junior state school teacher in the Victorian Education Department, Pike studied (1925-26) at the University of Melbourne. In 1927, for family reasons, he went to New South Wales and took a job as a rouseabout on properties in the Cassilis-Merriwa district; he also worked as a shearer and as a surveyor's-assistant. For a time he managed a small religious printery in Sydney, but soon went back to the land and became a station overseer successively on several properties, including Collaroy. He valued the experiences of his country years and what they taught him about life and people. The qualities he later showed as teacher, raconteur and colleague, and his direct, but quietly determined manner, owed much to this period.

With a sense of vocation Pike returned to Melbourne in September 1938 and trained at the College of the Bible, Glen Iris, run by the Churches of Christ. In 1941 he became a minister. On 25 November that year he married Olive Gertrude, daughter of Rev. Thomas Hagger, a minister of the Churches of Christ, who conducted the service at his Camberwell home. In Adelaide from 1942, Pike served at Colonel Light Gardens, Edwardstown and Glenelg. Meanwhile, he enrolled at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1948; M.A., 1951; D.Litt., 1957); he gained first-class honours in history and political science, and won the Tinline scholarship. In 1948, with characteristic intellectual honesty, and without prospects, he resigned his ministry and became 'a parson who has found the doctrinal way too strait'. G. V. Portus offered him a temporary lectureship in history at the university. Thus, at the age of almost 40, he began an academic career.

In 1949 Pike was appointed temporary lecturer at the University of Western Australia. By late 1950 he was back in Adelaide as reader—a senior position for one so new to university teaching. Within the history and political science department he was effectively in charge of history until 1954, when Hugh Stretton arrived and history was made a separate department. Appointed to the chair of history at the University of Tasmania in 1960, Pike became foundation general editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography on 31 January 1962. For almost two years he commuted between Hobart and Canberra, before settling in the national capital on 1 January 1964 as a professor in the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.

A national dictionary of biography had been mooted in the 1950s and by 1961 a small staff had been engaged on preliminary work, but no firm plans had been made for its production. With energy and foresight, Pike set about organizing the project. He soon discovered that a general editor required the skills of a manager and the tact of a diplomat, as well as the qualities of a historian and biographer. Once again his years of country pioneering stood him in good stead. He needed his diverse range of experience as he consolidated the administrative structure, comprising section editors, national committee, editorial board and working parties, and began the task of producing the first two volumes—1116 entries, covering the years from 1788 to 1850. Volume 1 appeared in 1966 and Volume 2 in 1967.

By that time Pike had put into shape a complex and efficient production system. His natural courtesy and firm belief in the value of the A.D.B. had enabled him to obtain the co-operation of a variety of people: his office staff, who helped in administration, research and checking; senior academics, who assisted in the broad aspects of editing, the listing of entries and the allocation of authors; and many writers (about three hundred for each volume), from a range of occupations and locations. Nearly all of them, except the office staff, were unpaid. The principle of honorary national collaboration was firmly established. The history departments of every Australian university, local historical and genealogical societies, State and national libraries and archives, and many individuals throughout the continent were involved. Not the least of Pike's achievements was to gain the support of registrars of births, deaths and marriages, and of probates. He was warmly appreciative of all this willing help.

Volumes 1 and 2 established the scholarly base of the A.D.B., and its social and educational value. Pike's passion was conciseness, without the sacrifice of humanity and style. He had developed a flair for lean prose and acquired a distaste for adjectives and adverbs; his style gave the volumes a sense of unity and uniformity. He jested that, as there were no adjectives in the psalms, there would be none in the A.D.B. Of course, many of them slipped through his net, but he was always sadly aware of it. More than once he claimed that, when he was a minister, he could reduce his sermons to one sentence as he stepped up to the pulpit. He did not overtly expect his authors to do the same with their articles, but often gave the impression that he wanted something like it; a few of them objected, but reconciliations were nearly always reached. A number of authors failed to produce the articles they had promised, or scamped on the work required. Such instances did not 'induce cheerful resignation in a fiercely dedicated man'. Even when articles were written or substantially rewritten by Pike or other members of his staff, he refused to append his name (or theirs) to them. Each volume won renown (as he might have put it) for succinct restatement of what was well known and much compact presentation of what was new. This high repute was mainly attributable to Pike's skill and industry, but he never tired of acknowledging the teamwork that went into the project.

Pike's sympathetic and effective teaching, and his publications—especially Paradise of Dissent: South Australia 1829-1857 (London, 1957) and Australia: The Quiet Continent (London, 1962)—had established him as one of Australia's most distinguished historians. His work on the A.D.B. revealed him as incomparably the country's best academic editor. He was quietly spoken, with a dry but genial sense of humour, leavened by the wisdom that flowed from his innate generosity, spacious experience and fertile memory; his personal qualities complemented his erudition to enable him to grasp the total substance of the A.D.B., as well as the significance of every article and its relationship to the whole. He was conscious of the constraint to keep volumes and articles within the allotted word lengths, but was equally aware of the individuality of each author and the uniqueness of each entry. As successive volumes appeared in 1969 and 1972 they revealed how he had mastered the complex task of harmonizing concise biographical writing, virtually all of it new, with the occasionally conflicting demands of contributors and publishers. The Ernest Scott prize in 1969 and the Britannica Australia award in 1971 provided appropriate recognition of his achievement.

Elected to the Australian Humanities Research Council in 1961, Pike served as its treasurer in 1966. The council was reconstituted as the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1969; he was a foundation fellow, secretary (1971-72) and treasurer (1969-73). He was appointed (1969) to the National Memorials Committee, a body established by the Federal government to oversee memorials, and to name suburbs and streets, in Canberra.

In 1973 there were signs that Pike's health was deteriorating, at least partly from his intense editorial efforts. A smallish, neat man, he was physically stronger than he looked. He had made a good recovery from a heart attack in the 1950s. His hobby was paving courtyards and making stone walls, and he built them to last. None the less, in his last decade he scarcely relaxed. He made a short visit to New Zealand after the completion of Volume 2 to secure further evidence in his long pursuit of E. G. Wakefield, and he spent eight months study leave in England as a Commonwealth fellow at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1969-70. Typically, he used the latter trip to visit national dictionary teams in Canada and South Africa, and to interview the scattered surviving organizers of the Dictionary of American Biography. By the latter part of 1973 he had Volume 5 substantially prepared. He was due to retire on 31 December, but had been offered a visiting fellowship from 1 January 1974 to complete Volume 6, the last of the 1851-1890 series. Douglas Pike suffered a cerebral thrombosis on 11 November 1973 and was admitted to Canberra Hospital. He died there on 19 May 1974 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian National University Reporter, 28 June 1974
  • Historical Studies, 16, no 64, Apr 1975
  • Canberra Times, 20 Mar 1969, 21 May 1974
  • ADB papers, 1272, Q31-12, 15 (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Pike, Douglas Henry (Doug) (1908–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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