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John Edmund Ryan (1923–1987)

by Mike Fogarty

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John Edmund Ryan (1923-1987), diplomat and public servant, was born on 13 March 1923 at Bondi, Sydney, second of six children of English-born Martin John Ryan, customs officer, and his wife Dorothy Jane, née Carrack, born in New South Wales.  John attended St Christopher’s School, Canberra, and won a district bursary to study at St Patrick’s College, Goulburn, where he was dux in 1940.  He passed first year arts at the University of Sydney the following year.

On 9 January 1942 Ryan enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force.  He served in New Guinea as a corporal in the 2/7th Independent Company between October that year and March 1943.  Selected for officer training at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory, he completed a shortened wartime course during which, on 14 March 1944, he was seriously injured in a military transport accident.  In June he was commissioned as a lieutenant.  From July 1945 he served as a platoon commander with the 2/12th Battalion at Balikpapan, Borneo.  His AIF appointment terminated in Australia on 23 January 1946.  In July that year he joined the Department of External Affairs (Foreign Affairs from 1970) as a diplomatic staff cadet.  On 28 January 1950 at the Star of the Sea Church, Watsons Bay, he married with Catholic rites Patricia Mary Wall, a nurse.  Having resumed his studies at Canberra University College in 1949, he graduated from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1952).

Ryan became Australian representative (1950-51) with the United Nations in Greece and chargé d’affaires at the Australian embassy, Rio de Janeiro (1953-54); he was consul in New York (1957-59) and first secretary, Australian Commission, Singapore (1960-61).  In 1962-64 he was in charge of administrative services for the department in Canberra.  High commissioner to Ghana (1965-67) and ambassador to Laos (1968-69), in 1969-71 he served as the minister at the Australian embassy in Washington, DC.  He was appointed OBE (1971).  Promoted (1971) to first assistant-secretary in charge of the management services division, he was ambassador to Italy (1974-77) and high commissioner to Canada (1977-80), before returning to Canberra as deputy-secretary of the department.

In October 1981 Ryan was appointed acting director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.  During an ill-conceived training exercise on the evening of 30 November 1983 ASIS officers 'raided' the Sheraton Hotel, Melbourne, brandishing weapons and menacing guests and staff.  A royal commission, established to look into Australia’s security and intelligence agencies, headed by Justice Robert Hope, investigated the incident.  Tabled in parliament in February 1984, Hope’s report criticised Ryan’s role, stating that his 'involvement in the exercise was a factor in the cause of the incident'.  Accepting responsibility, Ryan had resigned from ASIS on 18 December 1983 and retired from the Public Service on 9 May 1984.

Ryan, of medium height with a dark complexion, held firm conservative social and political views.  An efficient administrator and 'scrupulously honest', he was chairman (1959) of the executive board of the United Nations Children’s Fund.  He was a member of the Federal Golf Club, Canberra.  Survived by his wife and their two daughters and son, he died of lymphoma on 9 February 1987 in Canberra and after a requiem Mass at Christopher's Cathedral, Manuka, was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Fogarty, 'Soldier to Diplomat', Australian Defence Force Journal, no. 175, 2008, p 96
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), vol 1, paper no 1, 1984
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 December 1983, pp 1, 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1983, p 1
  • Canberra Times, 16 February 1987, p 7
  • B883, item NX178000 (National Archives of Australia)

Citation details

Mike Fogarty, 'Ryan, John Edmund (1923–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 March, 1923
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 February, 1987 (aged 63)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lymphoma)

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