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Bourke, Paul Francis (1938–1999)

by Barry Smith and Pat Jalland

Paul Bourke, Professor and Head of the Division of Historical Studies in the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS), died suddenly on 6 June during an official visit to the University of Otago.

He embodied and furthered the best in scholarly life. He was a brilliant, imaginative historian: his Washington County (1995), written with his Flinders University colleague Donald DeBats, was acclaimed by one reviewer as "one of the finest histories of politics ever written", while another declared it, "sure to have a major influence upon the writing of... American social and political history, geography, and political science".

Like all first-rate historians, Bourke was a polymath. Next year the Organization of American Historians' annual conference is to devote a special session to the book.

Bourke was among the first of the distinguished line of Australian Americanists taught by the remarkable Norman Harper in the History School at Melbourne University. Bourke then studied with Merle Curti at Wisconsin. While at Wisconsin he won a prize for excellence in teaching.

In 1968 he became Foundation Professor of American Studies at Flinders and quickly built a first-rate department. Bourke joined other subsequent ANU leaders, Oliver MacDonagh, Peter Karmel and Eric Richards, in forming Flinders' distinctively inclusive cross-disciplinary but coherent pattern which placed it among the best of the second generation Australian universities.

Bourke was appointed Director of RSSS in 1985. His unusual grasp of a range of social science disciplines, his accessibility—he rapidly knew everybody in the School — his concern for quality, incisiveness and readiness to explode self-serving claptrap made him a powerful, salutary and germinal Director.

As at Flinders, he soon emerged as a catholic intellectual force around the University, becoming the Directors' representative on the ANU Council, Chair of the Centre for Information Science Research, Chair of the Board of Management of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Chair of the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Acting Vice-Chancellor. He did his homework and argued without rancour towards decisions rather than "further discussions", and took responsibility for the results.

At the end of his term as Director in 1992, Bourke became a Professor of History in RSSS, and in the following year he was elected President of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, where he energised and largely shaped, as inaugural president, the National Academies Forum.

This body has played an important part in negotiations with government, universities and grant-giving bodies.

The Forum also launched a series of involving participants from an astonishing spread of disciplines, including the revelatory meeting on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in 1998.

In 1996, Bourke developed the ANU Research Evaluation and Policy Project (from the Performance Indicators' Project) to study Australia's research profile across all fields at the level of best international practice, levels which Bourke and his team have done much to refine. REPP's findings have become a powerful instrument in understanding the outcomes of Australian research policies and funding.

In between, he was a member of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO, President of the Australian Historical Association (1992-4), Chair of the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee on History Honours Degrees (1988-91), Editor of Historical Studies (1983-5) and somehow managed to publish over 30 papers covering American and Australian history, historiography and research and higher education in Australia.

In 1983 he won the Jane Kingsley Parker Prize of the American History and Theory Society. He helped out, often at short notice, at the Chancelry, responded generously to requests for help from other Australian and New Zealand universities, presented papers at international conferences and held visiting professorships at Smith College, Pennsylvania, Sussex and Harvard.

At ANU he supervised graduate and undergraduate theses and — backed by his wife, Helen, also an historian and Associate Professor at the Australian Catholic University — provided gentle, witty, sympathetic support for his colleagues and the myriad of people who sought his advice. Only academic chicanery and over-graphic history of medicine seminars ever (in a favourite phrase) "put him off his Weeties".

He was that very rare academic, creative, loyal, sceptical, who was both respected and loved.

A commemorative gathering is to be arranged at the ANU.

Original publication

Citation details

Barry Smith and Pat Jalland, 'Bourke, Paul Francis (1938–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bourke-paul-francis-137/text138, accessed 24 October 2017.

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