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McDonald, Donald Ian (Don) (1923–1990)

by Philip Alan Selth

Don McDonald, by David Coward, 1984

Don McDonald, by David Coward, 1984

[Donald Ian] Don McDonald, BA(Syd.), Litt.B(UNE), MA(Hons) (UNE), FRAHS, died on 15 August 1990 in Calvary Hospital, Canberra after a short illness. A Requiem Mass was celebrated at Holy Rosary Church, Watson on '20 August, followed by a burial service at Gungahlin cemetery.[1]

With Don's death, Australian historical research and writing suffered a significant setback — and I lost a close friend. 

I first met Don in 1971 when as President of the Australian National University's History Students' Association I approached him to write a review for the ANU Historical Journal. [2] Don cheerfully agreed to the request from someone he did not know, for a journal of limited circulation. A few days before his death, while visiting him in hospital, he asked me to write his obituary. He promised to sort out his personal papers to help me with the obituary, but I think we both knew that this was one piece of writing where we would not be able to argue about what should or should not be included, the use of a particu­lar word, or the placement of commas. 

Don had made the arrangements for his own funeral several years previously. He had also drafted the beginning of his obituary, written in the style of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, a work he greatly admired and to which he made an important contribution.

McDONALD, DONALD IAN (1923- ), public servant and author, third son of Donald, [sheep] station manager and Catherine, nee Boland, was born at Moree (NSW) on 25 May 1923. He was educated in early life by his mother and completed his secondary education [as a boarder] at De La Salle College, Armidale (NSW) and through private study. In 1956 he graduated BA (Syd.) and in 1978, Litt.B (UNE). [He was awarded an MA (Hons) from the University of New England in 1984.][3]

This biographical note tells us very little about Don's early life. He didn't talk much about his per­sonal affairs, although it was obvious to his close friends how fond he was of his mother, with whom he lived for much of his life. However, atypically, in one of his book reviews Don wrote about his mother and his early life in the country.

In browsing through this book, I was reminded of a remark often made by my mother. She was born early enough to remember the death of Queen Victoria and her early years were part of the 'golden age' of Austra­lian history. They were years spent in the bush where rancid butter, tainted meat or mouldy bread was the rule rather than exception. The chatelaine of a comfort­able establishment, she waged a constant battle against blowflies and such vermin as snakes, rats and mice to say nothing of temperamental cooks and rebellious yard boys. Groceries were ordered from Sydney each three months .... 'Slaving over the hot stove' was a fact of life .... There was no reason to misunderstand her when my mother vehemently declared, 'Do not talk to me about the good old days.' ... I recall visiting the shearing shed shortly before 'cut-out' when our pet lambs were being shorn (a gala occasion when we children were entertained by 'the board' to afternoon tea consisting of 'Hard-timers' washed down with strong, black tea); the huge wagon loads of wool, the noise, smells and dust. I remember the 'swaggies' .... I found this book to be extremely interesting even though it is a one-sided portrayal of country life. One will find, for example, very few photographs of the type of home­stead such as that graced by my mother; comfortable and roomy with an attractive flower and vegetable garden and a large orchard — certainly neither a man­sion nor a slab hut.[4]

On 17 September 1940 Don joined the New South Wales Treasury as a junior clerk and in July 1946 was transferred to the Commonwealth Treasury as a result of the wartime controls introduced for the collection of income taxes. Later he served in the Commonwealth Departments of Repatriation, Customs and Excise, Prime Minister's (in the Common­wealth Office of Education) and Attorney-General's. He retired from the Australian Public Service (APS) on 22 September 1982 'after a lack-lustre career'.[5]

On 22 July 1942 Don enlisted in the RAAF and was discharged on 8 January 1946, having served 'without distinction'[6] in Northern Australia and Morotai as ground crew. It has not been possible to trace his RAAF personnel file.[7] I can recall Don mentioning this period of his life only once. We were tramping through scrub near Katherine (NT) on a very hot day in 1974 inspecting possible sites for a Police Academy. (At that time the NT Police Force was administratively responsible to the Attorney-General's Department, of which we were then officers). Don remarked that he had last done 'this sort of thing' while laying signal wire during the war. He then went on to describe gleefully how when on switch­board duty one day he heard an officer, who was also a politician or would be politician (I cannot remember which) asking his wife 'down south' how much public­ity he was receiving in the press. Telephone calls were a privilege, and Don thought such a call was an abuse of that privilege. He also thought the officer pompous, a trait which always evoked criticism. Don 'pulled the plug' on the call; the line had developed a fault! 

Don was a professional (albeit unpaid) historian; his research extensive and meticulous. Yet his draft obituary contains a major error. His public service career was not 'lack-lustre'. It may have seemed that way to him, in part because he saw others less able — but less forthright — than he being appointed beyond his retiring level of Clerk Class 10. However, there are senior officers of the Australian Public Service who remember with gratitude the training and loyalty he gave them when they were young, brash and inexperienced. Eight years after he left the APS, some of these officers were at Don's Requiem Mass and several at the graveside standing in ankle-deep mud, rain pouring down, to pay tribute to their former supervisor and work colleague. 

I first worked with Don in the Department of Customs and Excise's censorship office (although it had a more euphemistic bureaucratic title). When the responsibility for censorship passed to the Attorney-General's Department we, too, were transferred (in March 1973) to that Department.[8]  After Senator Murphy put an end to most Commonwealth censorship, Don moved to other work in the Department's then Management and Special Services Division. 

Don's period in the censorship office covered the exciting days of Senators Chipp and Murphy, and the banning of The Little Red Schoolbook and the banning and subsequent release of the film 'Skyjacked'. On this occasion Don's views coincided with those of his Minister (but not all officers more senior to him). He believed adults should be able to read and view what they wanted, including pornography, but those who did not wish to do so should not have such material thrust upon them. Don's liberal attitude surprised many, who could not understand how a sincere, practising Catholic could hold such an opinion and so enjoy drafting ministerial replies of rebuff to the 'wowsers'. He was particularly incensed at those who wrote condemning material they had not seen. A campaign by senior Catholic clergy against the Government's censorship policies led to a bitter denunciation by Don of his beloved Church. 

Don was at his best preparing complex reports requiring extensive research. One of his major tasks in the Attorney-General's Department, for example, was the preparation of a submission to Government seeking approval for the Northern Territory Police Force to purchase ocean-going launches. This required months of work, some of it in the Territory. The Commissioner of Police later formally wrote to thank him and his assistant 'for the capable manner in which you approached your task, which created confidence with those with whom you had dealings. Your consideration and co-operation was appreciated by all members of this Police Force with whom you had contact'.[9]

Don went out of his way to ensure junior staff received credit for work they had prepared, although signed by a more senior officer. He trained his staff, not just supervised them. (He was a training officer in, at least, the Departments of Repatriation and Customs and Excise.) A public servant who worked with him in the Attorney-General's Department recalls:

As a supervisor I found him very supportive & encouraging .... He taught me sound clerical skills. I can hear him saying "The Queen's business on the Queen's files, Mr Carnell!" No doubt some others found him testy at times, but he expected high standards and taught me that there are times when a decision must be made so that matters can go forward. Don put his point of view regardless of whether it was what the recipients wanted to hear. This was part of the ethos about the public service; about advising honestly with the greater good in mind, about an honourable profession without self-aggrandisement.[10]

Complain about it as he did, Don was proud of the Australian Public Service. One of the reasons he retired early was to write a history of the Service from 1900 to 1910. His inability to finish that work is a great loss to the study of Australian administrative history, although fortunately he published several articles drawing on his research for the larger work.[11]

Don was 'a keen student of Australian history'.[12]  However, it was only in 1964, after he had turned forty, that his 'first significant paper,'[13] 'The Australian Soldiers Repatriation Fund: An experiment in social legislation', was published in the Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society.[14]  This paper probably owes some of its origins to his work as an officer of the Repatriation Department. It marked the beginning of an active, and at times acrimonious, association with the Royal Australian Historical Society (RAHS), which he had joined in 1953. 

Don was a Councillor and Honorary Research Officer of the RAHS 1965-1967, and Councillor again in 1978-82 when he sought to influence the direction of the Society, at the time a matter of some debate. He served on a number of its committees and contributed fourteen articles and six book reviews to the Society's Journal, and about sixty items to its News­letter. He read papers to meetings of the Society and participated in at least seven conferences of affiliated societies.[15] He also compiled the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society: Guide to the Contents: Volumes 1 to 65, 1901 to 1980,[16]  as well as the index for each volume for the period 1975 to 1989 (v.74).[17] In October 1972 Don was elected a Fellow of the Society.[18] He became a life member by purchase in January 1973. 

Most of Don's contributions to the RAHS' Newsletter were made during his period as the Society's Honorary Research Officer, and drew primarily on his reading of old newspapers in the Mitchell Library. The Library's earliest record of a reader's ticket application by Don is for 1956, when he gave as the purpose of seeking the ticket 'preparation of M.A. thesis — early history of Australian education'.[19] The thesis was not completed — if it was ever commenced. Don held a reader's ticket for 1956-60, and from 1964-1989. He gave as the reason for seeking to renew the ticket in 1964 his preparing a paper for the RAHS on the Tarban Creek mental asylum, presumably 'Gladesville Hospital: The formative years 1838-1850'.[20] Don was a regular user of the Mitchell and donated a significant amount of material to it, as he did to the National Library and the Canberra & District Historical Society (CDHS). (He made financial donations to the RAHS' library.) 

It was during his period as the RAHS' Research Officer that Don was asked (in December 1965) by the Wellington Historical Society and the Shire Council to write a history of the Wellington valley as a sesqui-centenary project. The results was They Came to a Valley: Wellington 1817-1967, published by the Society in 1968.[21] He also edited The Church in the Valley, a History of Wellington's St John the Baptist Anglican Church, published in 1967.[22] Wellington, Don wrote in 1987, 'met with a modicum of success; despite some obvious errors (for which no apology is made now), it was seen as being a valuable contribu­tion to the body of published local histories'.[23] For him, a serious local history should:

add a new dimension to our understanding of Australia's history. ... Such a study [should] not be a record of the activities of important people (or, for that matter, lesser mortals), most of whom had made no serious contribution to the community in which they had lived or the genealogy of such people. Rather, it should examine the history of the town or district and that history within the wider context of regional and national history. 

In writing Wellington he

tried to follow such a pattern, a point which was lost on reviewers and local readers. The former did not under­stand: the latter were upset because sufficient emphasis had not been placed on the contribution (real or imagined) of the local establishment and its power brokers, After reading the book again, I sympathise with the descendants of 'the great men' but, for my part, my head, although bloodied, remains unbowed."[24]

Don answered the question, 'what is history?' as had G.R. Elton. Stripped of philosophical argument, it is '"the search for truth" about things which "did actually once happen" to "real people, people quite as alive as we are and quite as entitled to respect for their humanity"'[25] The historian 'is concerned with the examination of historical facts. He does not merely collect minutae [sic] about the past but rather isolates those events which have significance or relevance to his subject.'[26]

Don's attitude to the writing of history was straightforward; he had no interest in 'the mere recording of events without any attempt being made to examine causes and effects'.[27] He wrote that he was:

concerned in the study of history in a serious way — what happened, why did it happen, and why at a particular time in man's development? I am not interested in what might be described as "popular" history in which some facts, the writer's prejudices, uncritical judgement, and appeals to a reader's emotions are mixed together in the manner of an Irish stew. Nor am I interested in history as portrayed in novels, drama, or films.[28]

Don moved to Canberra in 1962 and almost immediately joined the CDHS.[29] He played a major role in the Society's management and its research and publications program until his death. (He returned to Sydney mid-1964 to early 1966, when he was work­ing in the Commonwealth Office of Education.) He was an office-bearer for the period 1968-1974, in­cluding two years as President, 1969-1971,[30] and Vice-President 1973-1974. He was editor of the Journal 1966 to 1971, co-editor 1974-1975 and guest editor for the September 1986 edition. He was review editor of the Journal from 1988 to his death. In 1974 Don was elected an Honorary Life Member of the Society.[31] He was Convenor (and member) of a number of the Society's committees, primarily in the area of research and publications.[32] He was the Society's nominee on the ACT Historic Sites and Buildings Committee from 1972 until his resignation in 1978, including a period as its Chairman (1976-1978). 

In 1977 he was one of three recipients of a C. H. Currey Memorial Fellowship of $1250, awarded by the NSW Library Council to promote the writing of Australian history from original sources. The Fellowship assisted him in carrying out research, in the Mitchell Library and NSW Archives Office, which he had already begun on the development of mental health services in New South Wales between 1788 and 1900.[33]

As President of the Canberra & District Historical Society, Don 'unsuccessfully attempted to streamline the meetings of Council'.[34] He ran the Council meet­ings with a firm hand; he had no time for chatter about the garden at Blundell's Cottage, the death of a long-term resident of the district, or a Councillor's holiday. He saw such matters as being irrelevant to the business of the Society. As one Councillor wrote at the time, Don 'manages to keep the tendency towards discursiveness of some Committee members firmly in hand, while never letting more than the thin end of the big stick show.'[35] As a Councillor Don was not always as restrained, being particularly quick to respond to what he considered to be ignorant criticism of the Society's Journal and its other publica­tions by people who had contributed nothing to their production. On one occasion he stormed out of a Council meeting, slamming the door so hard that it jammed shut. Because I was the youngest Councillor, I had to climb out of a window and force the door open from the outside! 

On taking office as President at the Society's September 1969 Annual General Meeting, Don gave a short address on his aims for the Society, in particular his hope that members would play a more active part in its affairs. He borrowed from President John F. Kennedy: 'The question which we should ask ourselves is not "What can the Society do for me?" but rather "What can I do for the Society?"'[36] A year later he did not see that much had changed.[37] Yet another year later, 'having served with distinction and dedication his term of two years as President', Don 'retired gracefully to the honourable position of immediate past President'.[38] The Society's Newsletter records the very considerable amount of time and effort he put into his role of President. His 1970-71 annual report, in particular the 'Postscript', suggests that not all had gone as he had wished. 

When I was elected to the high office of President in 1969, I expressed a hope that the Society would become one in which its members were active in meeting its aims. I said then, and repeat without shame, that I believed that once the Society became 'respectable' it would no longer serve any worthwhile role in the community. My hope was that the Canberra and District Historical Society would earn recognition as a competent body engaged in the serious study of local and regional history making a significant contribution to scholarship and learning. Perhaps that was being idealistic but I believe that, with the resources at its command, it is an objective which can be met.[39]

I can recall a number of occasions when Don expressed dismay at what he considered lack of progress by the Society on some aspects of its work. He wanted so much for the Society, and set such high standards, that disappointment was almost inevi­table. It was just not realistic to expect that the Society's members would all contribute as he did.[40]

The Canberra Historical Journal owed its early existence to Don. In its early days he was its editor, production manager and a major contributor. He contributed two articles to the Canberra District Historical Society Papers (the forerunner to the Journal); nine articles and notes to the Canberra & District Historical Society Journal; and twenty-two articles and notes and 117 book reviews to the Canberra Historical Journal. He contributed at least eighteen items to the Society's Newsletter.[41] Don was an excellent editor of the Journal; not only was he technically very skilled, but he devoted countless hours assisting the less experienced attain the degree of scholarship he considered necessary before he would publish.[42]

He was respected as an editor and writer by his peers. When he surrendered editorship of the Canberra & District Historical Society Journal in 1971, his successor, John Iremonger (now Melbourne University Press' Director) expressed 'a great debt' to Don, to whom he attributed 'a large part of the credit' for the Journal's 'continuance and increasing quality.'[43] In his March 1986 'farewell message' as editor of the Canberra Historical Journal, Graeme Barrow referred to 'the indefatigable D.I. McDonald'. 'Acerbic, opinionated, testy, robust in his views McDonald has probably written more articles and book reviews for the Journal than any other contributor in my time.'[44] The current editor, Patricia Clarke, found Don as review editor 'creative not passive — he sought books which he thought should be reviewed, then gave a great deal of thought to choosing the right person to ask to review a particular book. He was very supportive to me as editor. With his wide-ranging knowledge of history and of people in the history field he was a great source of ideas for the Journal.'[45]

Don also wrote A Brief History of the Society 1953-85,[46] and contributed a chapter to Writing Local History, published by the Society in 1986.[47] The editors of two books published by the Society, Canberra Collection (1976) and Gables, Ghosts and Governors-General: The Historic House at Yarralumla (1988) recorded the assistance he gave in their preparation.[48] He contributed to the work of the Society in a range of other ways, particularly in his energetic participation in (and often leadership of) its research and publication program, and support for the library.[49] He read many papers to the Society, the first being 'The buildings of old Sydney — History in pictures' (11 February 1964).[50] His papers were fine examples of scholarship — well written, interesting, and presented with style and humour. Sacred cows were enthusiastically put to the sword.[51]

Don was also a major contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). He contributed twenty-seven entries to the twelve volumes so far published; from John Cadman, publican (v.l) to Sir Harry Newton Phillips Wollaston, barrister and public servant (v.12). He greatly admired the work of the ADB. In addition to his various entries, he allowed some of his unpublished work to be included in the ADB's Biographical Register 1788-1939.[52] He was also an unofficial adviser to the ADB for many years, and in 1989-90 was an active member of the Commonwealth Working Party, helping to select names for inclusion in Series 4 of the Dictionary. Although on occasions he was exasperated with the ADB, they remained 'true friends'.[53] He was proud of his work for the ADB, as he was of a note he received from its General Editor, Douglas Pike, after the publication in volume three of his entry on James Barnet. As Don proudly wrote to one of his close friends, 'I was quite thrilled by a note received from D.P. who acknowledged my "fine entry on James Barnet" – it was, he wrote "nice to know someone who knows how to do his homework". This, for me, was a greater reward than many other things of which I can think and more welcome than the commendation of many lesser persons.'[54]

Don also contributed, by invitation, to the fourth edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia.[55] He did so anonymously, 'after a difference of opinion with the Managing Editor whom he believed had subjected him to unwarranted criticism'.[56] Other publications to which Don contributed and not mentioned elsewhere in this memoir include Archetype, Australian Historical Statistics, Descent, Footprints, Leichhardt Historical Journal, Medical Journal of Australia and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association. He also wrote a number of letters to newspapers, primarily the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times on a wide range of subjects, including treatment of the mentally ill and those in nursing homes, the National Library and the publica­tion of the history of the ACT. 

Until his death, Don travelled widely about New South Wales, and occasionally interstate,[57] at his own expense to address historical societies and other bodies on behalf of the RAHS and CDHS. He must have addressed dozens of such gatherings, as his reputation as an historian grew, many invitations came direct to him, of which he was justly proud. 

One of the societies Don visited as a representative of the RAHS (and as President of the CDHS) was that at Harden-Murrumburrah, where in July 1970 he attended its first Annual General Meeting. In a brief address he 'outlined the objectives of a district historical society with particular reference to the preservation of material (both documentary and artefacts) and stressed that a decision to establish a museum should have as its basis the need to collect material reflecting the history of the district'.[58] Nearly twenty years later, he was commissioned by the Harden Shire Council to write what became The Shire of Harden: A History of Local Government 1890-1990.[59] As he wrote in the book's Introduction, the emphasis in this book is

on matters of local government as defined in relevant legislation and interpreted by the elected representa­tives of the community. But, because 'the Council' is a group of people elected by and answerable to the community in which it has its being, Council activities and decisions have been set in the context of the community which itself is often shaped and influenced by such acts. Above all, it emphasises the 'human face' of local government.[60] 

This was typical of Don's approach to the study of history; people, rather than formal institutions, were what mattered.

Most readers of this Journal will know Don for his love of history and writing and for his healthy cynicism and at times abrasive manner. But there are many others of us who will recall with gratitude — even fondness — a man who drove hundreds of kilometres to help an 'amateur' with his or her research; who arrived unannounced at the back door of a person who had hurt her back with a cushion-like device to ease the pain when sitting, or who gave away many of his books in the hope that the recipients would enjoy them as much as he had. It will not only be the library attendant he assisted with his schooling who will remember Don. The residents at the nursing home for whom he chose (and transported) books from the library, and the elderly man he took to the Australian War Memorial on Anzac Day, thought highly of Don. Some of his assistance was kept hidden even from those who benefitted.[61] I am sorry my son will not meet the man who sent him (not his parents) a card the day after he was born on which was written 'Might I give you one (and the only) word of advice — whatever you do do not touch Dad's books'! 

Don had a genuine concern for those in our society less fortunate than he. This was reflected in, for example, his many writings on the administration of the care of the mentally ill. He had no time for those who had no regard for the dignity of others.[62]

He also played a major role in the early years of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, formed in 1977. He was Honorary Research Officer (1979-1981), Honorary Secretary (1981-1986) and Treasurer (1984). It was he and Nan Phillips, the CDHS' Secretary, for example, who edited the Federation's Proceedings of its 1979 and 1981 biennial conferences, to which he had contributed a paper on the collections of the National Library.[63] He also began its Newsletter, noting typically in the first sentence of its second issue (April 1985) that 'To date there has been no response from members which would suggest that the Newsletter is of interest to them'! 

Don was well qualified to write about the National Library's collections, for he was one of their major users. He was proud of the low number (No. 106) of his Readers' Ticket for the Petherick Reading Room.[64] The Library's files contain numerous letters from him on a wide range of issues, including donations of research material, the 'dispute' over the management of the RAHS, objecting to the closure of reading rooms in the evenings and weekends, the photocopying services, the reduction of accommodation available to users of the Newspaper/Microcopy Room and a letter of congratulation on several of the Library's exhibitions.[65]

A senior officer of the Library who knew Don well recalls: 

[Don's] letters were generally written in formal terms and were often rather sharply expressed. He was in fact a good friend of the National Library and was very keen that the Library should capitalise on the friendly support of its users to establish a formal Friends of the National Library organisation ... he wrote on this subject in the letters column of The Canberra Times and I am aware that he spoke with successive Directors-General arguing the case for a Friends group. It is, of course, a source of satisfaction that the Library had succeeded in establishing the Friends of the National Library of Australia in the year that Don died and that he was fully aware of this fact. 

… Don took a keen interest in the National Library's service role and its special responsibility to serve as the custodian of the country's documentary heritage. In support of this, he had placed his own papers into the Library's care and safe-keeping, a collection which was completed only after his death with the final transfer of papers from Don's study at home in Hackett. 

While Don's letters to the Library over the years have a rather sharp tone, he is remembered with consid­erable affection by the staff he dealt with in the various reading rooms. He was a regular user of the Manuscript and Pictorial Reading Rooms and of the Petherick and Newspaper and Microcopy Reading Rooms. A large contingent of staff from these various service points attended Don's funeral ... Don was in the best sense a friend of the National Library of Australia. He derived a considerable benefit from its collections and its services over the years but more importantly he believed in the institution itself, recognising its essential place in Aus­tralia as a collector and custodian of the historical heritage of our country. It followed from this that he had high expectations of the quality of its service and of the obligations which the Library had to ensure the best possible accessibility to its collections and services.[66]

It is difficult to understand how Don found time for all that he did, particularly when we remember that he did not retire from the Public Service until 1982. Somehow, in addition to his various contributions to historical societies and their publications, and to the individuals he helped privately, Don found time to complete a Bachelor of Letters (1978) and a Master of Arts (Hons) (1984) from the University of New England. His theses, reflected his interests in mental health services, architecture and public administration: 

The 1878 Lunacy Act and afterwards: A study of the development of mental health legal and administrative services in nineteenth century New South Wales (Litt.B) James  Barnet  New  South  Wales  Colonial  Architect (1865-1890) (MA(Hons)).

Don's long-term interest in James Barnet, one of Australia's leading architects of the nineteenth century, led him to be invited by the NSW Public Works Department  to join  with  Peter  Bridges  to write James Barnet, Colonial Architect. This was published to critical acclaim in 1988.[67] When Don told me he was to co-author a book I somewhat rashly suggested that there would soon be a 'parting of the ways' with his co-author. My view was shared by others who knew Don. Yet this was not the case. As the two authors noted in the book's Acknowledgements: 

The writing of a joint study gives rise to problems which can only be fully understood by persons who have had that experience. Joint authorship is likely to be either a stimulating or a frustrating experience — we have been fortunate. 

Peter Bridges found the collaboration on Barnet 'a happy one out of which grew a warm friendship'. Like many of us, he fondly recalls their convivial lunches with a bottle of wine (the University House Bistro should name a table after Don!) discussing drafts of the book. 

Two outstanding things which I recall about Don are: first his generosity in sharing his knowledge (about which he was unduly modest) and pointing the way to new materials and second, his cutting and no-humbug comments about academic pretensions and the second rate, at least in private, was in such contrast to his gentle facade. He was a good hater but a loyal supporter of friends. Also remarkable was his capacity to make apparently dry subjects, such as administrative and governmental history come alive and reveal their human content ... [He was] a remarkable friend.[68]

Others recall Don's generous assistance with their research and writing (as do I). Ian Carnell, too, found him most helpful with historical research. 

He was dedicated to rigorous analysis and a good part of the standing of the CDHS must be attributed to Don. A simplistic or sentimental view of the past drew his scorn. He was more 'professional' than a goodly number of academics.[69]

Don also found time to act as supervisor for a candidate for the Society of Australian Genealogists' (SAG) Diploma of Family History Studies, and to encourage her to read a paper to the Canberra & District Historical Society.[70] In a way this particular act of generosity was unusual, for Don had little interest in genealogy, although he knew a number of SAG's office-bearers well. (The Society was represented at Don's funeral.) 'Don always maintained that he had no need for genealogical research as Culloden had sorted the position of the McDonalds in this world.'[71] He was critical of those who chased ances­tors merely for the sake of adding names to a family tree, although he believed someone writing a family history was to be encouraged. (Don's attitude to genealogists was in part influenced by his having to compete with them for microfilm readers in the National Library!) 

Don had all the 'personal qualities' which he thought made a competent historian (and he was much more than just 'competent'): 

Clearly, the first requirement is an interest in history — not the mere worship of ancestors or interest in the past as such. Ideally, I suppose that one should have a formal education in the historical method but this does not necessarily make one an historian — it merely serves to make the task easier. Intelligence, imagination, patience, perseverance, scepticism — these are the qualities which we should cultivate. And finally, we should be prepared to share with others the knowledge which we have acquired and to learn from their questioning of our conclusions. What are the rewards — a sense of achievement in uncovering new material and adding to the store of knowledge of our past; companionship with others sharing a similar interest; the knowledge that we have given something to the community in return for the favours we have received.[72]

Don's life was a busy and productive one. He gave generously of his time to help others with their research and writing. He was, however, quick to acknowledge the assistance and advice he received from others, even when he chose to take an alterna­tive path. He also acknowledged with gratitude the support he received from his sister Gwen, with whom he lived for many years. As Don wrote in the Introduction to The Shire of Harden, he was 'indebted' to Gwen; 'she understood the words from the epilogue to the Book of Ecclesiastes — "writing books in­volves endless hard work".' 

Don strove for the highest standards of scholar­ship. If something was not done well, he said so. His severe judgments were not always made privately, and wounded some, as did his witty (sometimes excoriating) observations. He was also a loyal friend, generous with both his time, knowledge and material possessions. His interests were 'reading and writing and observing the passage of man through the twentieth century'.[73] He made a remarkable contribution to the scholarship of this century. 

Don McDonald was a scholar and a gentleman.


[1] See obituaries in the Canberra Times, 20 August, 1990 (Ste­phen Payne); Australian Catholic Historical Society Newsletter, November 1990 (Shirley McGlynn); and History Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society, February 1991 (Alan Roberts)

[2] J. M. Freeland, Architect Extraordinary; The Life and Work of John Horbury Hunt: 1838-1904 (Melbourne, 1971); ANU His­torical Journal, no. 8, 1971

[3] Draft obituary. Copies of all unpublished writings cited in this memoir have been lodged with the National Library of Australia.

[4] Review of G. Dutton (Intro.) Country Life in Old Australia, Penguin, 1987, in Canberra Historical Journal (hereafter CHJ), NS No. 20, September 1987

[5] Draft obituary

[6] Draft obituary. Surprisingly, the draft obituary incorrectly re­cords both his discharge date and the date of his retirement from the APS. The military and APS service dates given in this memoir are from Don's APS personnel file. I am grateful to Stephen Payne for checking that file for me.

[7] I am grateful to Chris Coulthard-Clark, the Society's current President and an RAAF historian, for his efforts in trying to trace the file.

[8] One senior Attorney-General's officer disparagingly called us 'those former Customs clerks', a title we wore with pride — and which Don later used for one of his articles: 'The former Customs clerks: Wollaston and Lockyer', CHJ, NS No. 20, September 1987. 

Don admired the Department of Customs and Excise, and tried for some years to persuade its senior management to commission its history. There was even some tentative discus­sion about him writing such a history. It is therefore not surprising that the first issue of the Australian Customs Histo­ry Journal (June 1989), which noted that an official history of the Australian Customs Service was being written by Dr David Day, contained an article by Don, 'Damned if you do and damned if you do not', an examination of the administration by Customs officers of s.3(g) of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Seventeen years after Don left Customs and Excise, officers of the Service still remembered: the Service placed a memorial notice to 'A colleague and friend to many officers' of the Service in the Canberra Times. 

[9] Commissioner W. J. McLaren to D. I. McDonald, 7 June 1974

[10] Ian Carnell to writer, 15 December 1990

[11] See, for example, The former Customs clerks ...', op.cit.; 'Your obedient servants', CHJ, NS No. 22, September 1988; 'The nineteenth-century New South Wales Civil Service: Re­forms and the Northcote-Trevelyan report', JRAHS, October 1985; and 'The founding years of Commonwealth public adminis­tration, 1901-1910' in J. J. Eddy & J. R. Nethercote (eds) To­wards National Administration (Sydney, 1991, forthcoming).

Don had discussed with a staff member of the Australian National University the possibility of his work on the early days of the (then) Commonwealth Public Service being done as a doctoral thesis. He was told the University did not have anyone qualified to be his supervisor; he was bitterly critical of that comment.

[12] Draft obituary

[13] ibid.

[14] JRAHS, January 1964, v.49(5). I have been unable to trace any of Don's writing published before this date. The article was published in the JRAHS 'with the permission of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, A.C.T. branch', which sug­gests it was prepared initially for the Institute, perhaps as an address or entry for an award. Twelve years later, the article was still worthy of being included in Jill Roe's Social Planning in Australia: Some Perspectives 1901-1975 (Stanmore, NSW, 1976)

[15] See the RAHS Conference with affiliated societies, Proceedings for 1965, 1967, 1970, 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1981

[16] Sydney, September 1984

[17] Don put a considerable amount of effort into indexing the JRAHS, and to his friends jokingly remarked that it ensured he read the Journal! (see Shirley McGlynn's comment in her obituary in the Australian Catholic Historical Society Newslet­ter, November 1990). However, typically, Don was quick to point out his achievements when he felt they had been unreason­ably ignored. See, for example, his letter to the editor of'the RAHS Newsletter (August 1988): 'For the record I would also mention, since the Society's Annual Reports ignore it, that I have prepared the index for thirteen volumes of the Journal and, as a result, I have fed into the Society's card index in excess of 7000 cards. I believe that mine has been a valuable contribution to the Society which is not to be sneezed at even though it seems to be taken for granted.'

[18] The Society's Articles of Association provided that its Council may elect as Fellows those who in its opinion 'have rendered valuable service in advancing the knowledge of Australian histo­ry and in furtherance of the objects of the Society'. The maximum number of Fellows at any one time could not exceed 25; at the time of Don's appointment there were 11 Fellows. See 'A well-deserved honour', CDHS Newsletter, December 1972.

It was through the initiative of Don and another Fellow, Keith Johnson, that the RAHS in July 1985 held its first annual Fellows dinner (see RAHS Newsletter, April 1986). He also successfully proposed the appointment of two other Fellows — I was a co-signatory to the nominations, but Don had done all the background research,

[19] Margy Burn, Mitchell Librarian, to writer, 3 December 1990

[20] JRAHS, December 1965, v. 51(4)

[21] Don gave an account of his writing of Wellington in 'Objects of regional importance: The writing of local history', RAHS, 1965 Conference with affiliated societies, Proceedings; reprinted in CDHS Journal, September 1968.

[22] D. I. McDonald (ed.) The Church in the Valley, Being a History of the First 100 Years of the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Wellington, NSW 1867-1967, Wellington, 1967. This was not the last time Don would be asked to write the history of a town. I recall two NSW Councils asking him to put forward proposals to write the history of their towns. Nothing came of these, in part because the councillors were not prepared to accept three of Don's non-negotiable 'terms': unrestricted ac­cess to council records, no interference with what he wrote, and no mandatory inclusion of lists of councillors! When Don was invited to write a history to commemorate the centenary of local government in Harden, NSW, his formal proposal letter included reference to there being no 'censorship over material to be included on the author's interpretation of events': see D.I. McDonald to Shire Clerk, Harden Shire Council, 16 June 1989. Typically, the proposed role of the Centenary Committee was 'not [to] exercise a role of censorship over material to be included or the author's interpretation of events'. I am grateful to Mr R. A. Littlejohn for copies of the correspondence between Don and the Council (which Don provided to him).

With Harden, too, there was a difference of view between Don and at least one member of the Council about the inclusion in the history of material concerning certain 'prominent people'. Don did not alter his manuscript. The Harden Shire Council, however, did open its records to the historian without restric­tion, contrary to Don's expectation fifteen years earlier, when he questioned whether 'worthy councillors [would] be willing to expose their institutions' to detailed scrutiny: see '"Self-govern­ment at the King's command"', CHJ, March 1975, p.39

[23] 'Reflections on the writing of local history', CHJ, NS No. 19, March 1987, p.18

[24] ibid; see also '"Weaving a multitude of loose, uneven threads into an enduring tapestry": Writing the history of our town', RAHS 1967 Conference with affiliated societies. Proceedings

[25] G. R. Elton, The Practice of History, Sydney, 1967, p.57, cited by D. I. McDonald in 'Grass roots of history', CDHS Journal, March 1973, p.47

[26] 'Grass roots of history', ibid.

[27] 'Objects of regional importance: The writing of local history', CDHS Journal, September 1968. p.2

[28] 'The study of local history', CDHS Journal, March 1971, p.10

[29] Don wrote to Mrs Nan Phillips, the CDHS' Honorary Secretary, on 31 October 1962 seeking details about the Society after seeing an advertisement in the Canberra Times for a meeting that night. He joined the Society sometime between November 1962 and April 1963, when the CDHS Newsletter records him as being a new member.

[30] For annual reports on his presidency, see CDHS Newsletter, October 1970 and October 1971

[31] CDHS Newsletter, October 1974; see also Minutes of the CDHS Council, 27 August 1974. The Society's then constitution pro­vided that the Council could appoint as an honorary life member any person who, in his opinion, had 'rendered outstanding service, or made notable contribution to the work of the Society or its aims'.

[32] Don resigned from the Publications Committee in 1987 because he felt the Society's Bicentenary program was inadequate.

[33] Canberra Times, 18 January 1977

[34] Draft obituary

[35] CDHS Newsletter, December 1969

[36] CDHS Newsletter, October 1969

[37] See Report of the AGM and President's 1969-70 Report, CDHS Newsletter, October 1970

[38] CDHS Newsletter, October 1971

[39] ibid.

[40] Don's frustration was not confined to the activities of the Canberra & District Historical Society. His questioning of what had been, and might be achieved by individual societies and the societies as a group is reflected in R. Else-Mitchell's 'What future for historical societies?', CHJ NS No. 15, March 1985, which Don helped prepare. See also his report in the CDHS Newsletter of October 1988 on the international Terra Australis to Australia conference: 'the principal historical societies did not see fit to send a representative to this most important conference ... One cannot help wondering whether that indiffer­ence by the Societies is an implied admission of their declining influence'.

[41] In preparing this memoir I compiled a list of all Don's published writings I could trace. That list, of about 250 items, has been lodged with the CDHS and National Library.

[42] Dick Littlejohn, a Life Member of the Harden-Murrumburrah Historical Society, in a letter to the writer of 27 November 1990, recalls:

In [1971] Don asked me to give a talk to the CDHS, which I did. He then asked permission to publish it. At that time I had never written anything suitable for such a prestigious journal. Don said 'send me your text and I will tidy it up'. He not only tidied it up but did further research. On its return I read it and replied it could only be published under our joint names. [Don] responded by asking if he could say it was written by me, with his assistance. 'I am in a bit of trouble with the Society can I say written by you assisted by me'. I agreed. When it appeared (Don was co-editor at the time) it only had my name on it, ['Harden Mumimburrah: A brief history", CHJ March 1975]

From then on nothing of consequence I published appeared before he checked it. He was my mentor. The same happened with the other talks I gave to Canberra and which were published always after he had 'tidied them up'...    

Even with my first draft for the last talk I gave to the society, ['Early agricultural activities in the County of Harden', CHJ, NS No. 26 September 1990], he replied 'I wouldn't walk across the street to hear that. This is what you have to do with it'. I had written a very objective paper. He told me to relate what I was saying to local people. So instead of just talking about rural matters I related them to Alexander Mackay, blacksmithing, to Alexander Reid & Son & so on. He then approved.

[43] CDHS Journal, December 1971, Editorial

[44] A 'classic' example of Don at his acerbic best is his review of E. Dunlop, Harvest of the Years: The Story of Burwood 1794-1974 (Burwood, 1974) which he summarised as 'love's labour lost'!; see CHJ, March 1975, p.44

[45] Patricia Clarke to the writer, 22 November 1990

[46] The history was published as a monograph in 1974; it was revised and reprinted in 1985. It was also published in the CDHS Newsletter, December 1973

[47] 'Public records and local history', in A. Roberts (ed.) Writing Local History, Canberra, 1986

[48] P. A. Selth (ed), Canberra Collection (Kilmore, 1976); C. D. Coulthard-Clark Gables, Ghosts and Governors-General (Sydney, 1988). Among other help, Don encouraged the first editor not to give up; he prepared the index for Gables

[49] Don made major contributions to, for example, workshops on research, historical writing and oral history: see, for example CDHS Newsletter, May 1972, August 1972, August 1985, De­cember 1986 and March 1990

[50] Later published as one of the CDHS Papers. The address was illustrated by 'very fine coloured slides which Mr McDonald had taken', CDHS Newsletter, March 1964

[51] In his report for the CDHS Newsletter June/July 1988) of the paper Don read to the Society on 10 May 1988, 'Your obedient servants', George Temperly noted that Don 'in typically contro­versial fashion, commenced by contradicting the assertion of Professor John Molony that Robert Garran was "the first, and for a short time, only Commonwealth public servant".' The paper was published in CHJ, NS No. 22 September 1988

[52] H. J. Gibbney & Ann G. Smith A Biographical Register 1788-1939: Notes From the Name Index of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (2 vols), Canberra, 1987

[53] Dr Chris Cunneen, Deputy General Editor, ADB, to writer, 18 December 1990

[54] D. I. McDonald to Shirley McGlynn, 7 June 1967. I am grateful to Mrs McGlynn for providing me with copies of some of Don's letters to her.

Don described his involvement with the ADB in a review of volume 8 (1891-1939, CI-GI3), published in the CHJ, NS No. 9 March 1982.

Readers of this review are warned that I am unashamedly prejudiced in my support for and admiration of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. I have enjoyed a long and rewarding association with the project... I firmly believe that this is the most significant contribution to Australian history studies since the Historical Records of Australia were first published.

... I know nothing of the events leading to my receiving an invitation from the general editor, Douglas Pike, to prepare an entry on John Cadman, publican. I am sure that Douglas Pike did not realise that his invitation was a form of flattery which I could not resist; like Chanti­cleer I fell into what might loosely be described as the fox's noose. With the publication of Volume 1, I felt proud that my work, albeit of no significance, was included in such a prestigious publication. In 1981 and fifteen entries later, that sense of pride has not disappeared.

... I have on occasion been asked why I have written about certain persons in my 'field', whatever that might mean. Indeed, with one or two exceptions the greater number of persons about whom I have written have been administrators who fit quite neatly into my general interest in administrative history. Nevertheless, to be asked to write about a person about whom one knows very little is a challenge and, at the same time, broadens one's general knowledge of sources and the scope of our history.

[55] Grolier, Sydney, 1977 (6 vols)

[56] Draft obituary

[57] In Heritage Week 1980, for example, Don gave an address in Melbourne sponsored by the Royal Historical Society of Victoria in association with the National Trust (Victoria Division). The address was published in the Victorian Historical Magazine (February 1981, v.52(l)) as 'Wardell — Architect and Civil Servant'

[58] D. I. McDonald, CDHS Newsletter, September 1970

[59] D. I. McDonald, The Shire of Harden: A History of Local Govern­ment 1890-1990, Harden, 1990

[60] ibid, p. x. Don's interest in the history of local governments was not new. Fifteen years earlier he had written a review article for the Canberra Historical Journal, '"Self-government at the King's command"' (March 1975, pp. 38-9), asking 'Why is it that among local historians there has been a reluctance to make a detailed and critical examination of politics at the grass roots?' He urged 'the detailed study of particular councils which is essential if we would aspire to a total understanding of local and regional history'. Harden is such a study.

[61] I can think of two deserved recipients of awards for service to the community whose nomination was supported by Don. I doubt that either of them know that he was one of those who nominated them for the award.

When John Garran died in 1976 before completing his history of the Australian Merino and its fleece, Don helped Leslie White finish the book by checking and revising its extensive biblio­graphy and references: see Winifred Garran's Preface to J. C. Garran & L. White, Merinos, Myths and Macarthurs: Austra­lian Graziers and Their Sheep, 1788-1900, Canberra, 1985. See also Don's account in the CDHS Newsletter of May 1985 of the launching of the book, where he noted Mrs Garran's tribute to 'the enthusiasm and encouragement of two members of this Society [i.e. Don and another] who believed that John's many years of detailed research should be recorded in a permanent form'.

[62] See, for example, his account of the 150th anniversary celebra­tions of British settlement in northern Australia, held on Melville Island on 26 September 1974. In his report of that occasion Don noted the welcoming dances of the Tiwi tribe — and the 'less widely publicised attraction ... [of] a beautiful display of art work prepared by the children ... Nor can one forget the "ugly Australians" who believed that the possession of a camera gave them some sort of superiority over lesser persons, or who embarrassed their hosts through repeated demands that the "grog store" be opened so that they might indulge a common craving for drink. But those objectionable persons will soon be forgotten... as one recalls the courtesy and gentleness of our hosts of the day — the Tiwi people'. CDHS Newsletter, November 1974

[63] D. I. McDonald & N. Phillips (eds) Federation of Australian Historical Societies: Proceedings: Biennial Conferences: 1979, 1981, Canberra, 1983

[64] The ticket was first issued about 1968 for the purpose of researching ADB entries. I am grateful to Patricia Clarke for this information: letter to writer, 14 January 1991

[65] Correspondence between D. I. McDonald and the National Library, various dates. A sample of this correspondence was generously provided to me by John Thompson, Director, Austra­lian Collections and Services, 11 December 1990. See also letters to the editor, Canberra Times, 'Friends of the National Library', 12 November 1983

[66] John Thompson to writer, 11 December 1990

[67] P. Bridges & D. I. McDonald James Barnet, Colonial Architect, Sydney, 1988. Sandy Yarwood in the Weekend Australian, 10-11 February 1990, described Barnet as 'beautifully written'

[68] Peter Bridges to writer, 21 November 1990

[69] I. Carnell to writer, 15 December 1990

[70] See Pat Lay, 'Pitfalls encountered in the practice of family history', CHJ, NS No. 19 March 1987

[71] Keith Johnson, FSAG, FRAHS to writer, 29 November 1990

[72] 'The study of local history', CDHS Journal, March 1971, p.19

[73] Draft obituary

Original publication

  • Canberra Historical Journal, March, 1991, pp 12-20

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Philip Alan Selth, 'McDonald, Donald Ian (Don) (1923–1990)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 September 2019.

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