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Burton, Herbert (Joe) (1900–1983)

by Bob Brissenden

Herbert Burton, 1983, by Norman Wodetzki

Herbert Burton, 1983, by Norman Wodetzki

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2307

When the history of the Australian National University comes to be written, the late Emeritus Professor Herbert—Joe—Burton will be seen not merely as a good and gentle man but also as a wise and possibly a great one.

The words 'good and gentle' occur in Professor J. D. B. Miller's justifiably warm and affectionate citation delivered on May 12 when this University conferred on Joe Burton the degree of Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa. In this citation and in the obituary published in the Canberra Times the details of Professor Burton's career, from Queensland Rhodes Scholar to Secretary of the Social Science Research Council and the several other public offices he held after his retirement, are fully set out. Without rehearsing these I should like to pay tribute simply to Joe Burton's work as Principal first of the Canberra University College and then of the School of General Studies.

The CUC had been established in 1930 as a college of the University of Melbourne. It was predominantly a small night-school for public servants; and in 1948 when Joe Burton was appointed Principal and Professor of Economic History there were no professors and only a handful of students. By 1960, when the College was amalgamated with the ANU, there were 800 students and 75 members of staff of whom 19 were professors— among them some extremely distinguished 5 scholars and stimulating teachers.

The amalgamation—a shotgun wedding performed by the Prime Minister Mr Menzies— was a logical move that was in general welcomed. But there were a number of people, both in what was now called the Institute of Advanced Studies (the old ANU) and in the College (now the SGS) who were less than happy. The ANU, the first academic institution in Australia to be devoted to pure research, had been established in 1946 in the face of a certain amount of opposition, scorn and envy from the older universities.

Understandably jealous of their reputation there were some members of the ANU who looked down on or tried to ignore the humble hewers of wood and drawers of water in teaching institutions—particularly the College. Some of the teachers, especially those with a substantial publications list, had little time for the ivory-tower researchniks up the road. Fortunately, there was also a deal of goodwill on both sides.

It was an interesting, exciting and potentially dangerous time for the University. That it came through the crisis so successfully, and that the Faculties in particular were able to continue growing and developing, probably owes more to Joe Burton than any other single person. He was a man universally respected for his integrity, his concern for the maintenance of the highest academic principles and for his humaneness: people in the end were what mattered.

He was, above all, perhaps, a man with that rare combination of great kindness and sound common sense. There are many—and I am one—who have reason to remember with gratitude his generosity and thoughtfulness.

When the CUC eventually became part of the ANU, it brought with it, I believe, a spirit and a sense of purpose which were of inestimable value to the new joint institution—a spirit and a sense of purpose that had been fostered and encouraged under the gentle but firm leadership of Joe Burton.

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Citation details

Bob Brissenden, 'Burton, Herbert (Joe) (1900–1983)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/burton-herbert-joe-180/text181, accessed 25 September 2017.

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