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Henderson, Ronald Frank (1907–1994)

by Joseph Ezra Isaac

from Age (Melbourne)

Bessy Cameron with her husband, Donald, n.d.

Bessy Cameron with her husband, Donald, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Ronald Henderson, 77 — Emeritus Professor Ronald Henderson is best remembered for his pioneering studies of poverty in Australia and its associated elements income distribution, social welfare, health and housing.

His interest in poverty issues was more than scholarly. It was also an expression of a social conscience and a desire for a fairer society. It might seem surprising that a person of comfortable means should have been so passionately concerned with the issue of poverty.

Part of the explanation may be a noblesse oblige element in his character, but the main explanation was that, as with so many economists of his generation, the mass unemployment and poverty of the 1930s made a deep impression on him, influencing his social values and his economic interests.

Professor Henderson was born in Dundee, Scotland. His interest in poverty was not manifest in his early career. After six years in the army, he returned in 1946 to Cambridge as fellow of Corpus Christi and worked mostly on money-market issues.

It was a happy combination of circumstances that brought him to Melbourne and to a new field of research his marriage to a Victorian, Mary Steel, in 1950, followed by visits to Melbourne and finding a soulmate in Richard Downing, professor of economic research at the University of Melbourne.

Together, they provided the impetus for the establishment of the Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne. Henderson was appointed director in 1962, a position he held until his retirement in 1979.

Together, they drove the institute's agenda for some years; and although this covered a wide range of economic policy issues, plans for a survey of poverty in Melbourne were developed in 1964, which, at a time of full employment, may have seemed an unproductive venture.

But the results revealed significant pockets of poverty and led in 1972 to Henderson's appointment by the Commonwealth Government as chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into Poverty.

Henderson's other pioneering success was securing the support of business and governments for a number of the institute's projects, which by 1968 included the quarterly publication The Australian Economic Review.

Henderson enjoyed the confidence of business, unions and governments of all political shades. He was free from doctrinal rigidity. While accepting the virtues generally of the market mechanism, he believed that it was necessary for governments to intervene when the market was unable to meet what he regarded as necessary objectives, such as full employment, low inflation, efficient allocations of resources and viable balances of payments, but also a more equitable distribution of income.

After his retirement, he maintained his interest in economic and social policy from the sidelines, and took an active part in the work of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Victorian Council of Social Service until poor health slowed him down.

He became increasingly despondent about the spread of Thatcher economics and its doctrinaire and obsessive rection of government regulation, even in the face of market failure and increasing poverty.

Henderson had an engaging personality warm, quick-witted, his lean and expressive face was enlivened by twinkling blue eyes. He spoke and wrote clearly and to the point; verbosity was anathema to him.

Resolute, he undertook what was to be done with enthusiasm, energy and sound judgment. He enjoyed the loyalty and affection readily extended to him by his colleagues. He was a man of the highest integrity, personally and intellectually.

He was a devoted family man, and his family was devoted to him.

His lasting legacy is that the studies of poverty, health and welfare which he initiated, have spawned a host of associated studies, if not these days by the institute which he helped to found, at least by other institutions in Australia.

* Emeritus Professor J. E. Isaac, formerly professor of economics, University of Melbourne and Monash University, deputy president of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 11 January 1995, p 12

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Citation details

Joseph Ezra Isaac, 'Henderson, Ronald Frank (1907–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/henderson-ronald-frank-29836/text37351, accessed 4 April 2020.

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