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Pike, Douglas Henry (Doug) (1908–1974)

by Laurie Fitzhardinge

With the death of Professor Douglas Pike on 19 May, scholarship lost a devoted servant and the University a most distinguished, albeit unassuming, member.

Douglas Henry Pike was born on 3 November 1908 in China, where his Australian parents were missionaries, and was educated there in the school of the Inland Mission until his sixteenth year. He then, in 1924, came to Australia alone and joined the Victorian Education Department as a part-time teacher while he studied at the University of Melbourne. Two years later his father was killed by bandits and Douglas became responsible for the education of his two younger brothers and sister. To earn the necessary money he went to work in the bush, becoming after a time overseer of a large cattle station in New South Wales, with a brief interlude during the depression as manager of a small religious printery producing the weekly War Cry in Sydney.

In 1938, with his brothers and sister established respectively in pharmacy, accountancy and nursing, he experienced a call to the ministry, and entered the theological college of the Churches of Christ in Melbourne, serving after graduation as a minister first in Melbourne and later in Adelaide. In 1941 he married Olive Hagger, the daughter of a minister of the same church. The marriage was an exceptionally close and happy one, and they had two sons.

In Adelaide, Pike resumed his interrupted university studies, and though a part-time student he graduated in 1947 with first class honours in history and political science and the Tinline Scholarship for the best student in history. Six months filling in for an absent senior lecturer turned him towards a regular academic career. In 1949 he became lecturer in history in the University of Western Australia, and two years later he returned to Adelaide as a reader. In 1960 he moved to the chair of history in Tasmania, and in 1962 he came to ANU as the first General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography with the rank of Professor. Here he built up the organisation of the Dictionary and saw the first four volumes issue from the press. The fifth, virtually complete, was with the printer when he died.

Paradise of Dissent: South Australia 1829-1857 (1957: 2nd ed. 1973), the story of the foundation and early years of South Australia, was a landmark in the writing of Australian social history, not only for its scholarship but for its perceptive study of the interaction of the English background of the founders and their colonial aspirations and experience. Australia: the Quiet Continent (1962: 2nd ed. 1970) is still the best short introduction to Australian history. But Pike's great monument is, of course, the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

While the conception of this project was shared by a number of people, of whom Pike was one, and its execution was the work of many collaborators, every page bears the unmistakeable marks of Pike's personality, of his rigorous and exacting scholarship, his passionate sense of style and relevance and his scrupulously precise editing. Every fact was checked and double-checked, usually by the editor himself. Legends were toppled, family illusions gently but firmly shattered that truth might prevail. To this work he devoted himself without reserve, driving himself relentlessly. Only a few weeks in New Zealand after the completion of volume II collecting material on Edward Gibbon Wakefield and a sabbatical year in 1969—70 as Commonwealth Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, provided some break in his detailed work. The result has been generally acclaimed as one of the best of the national biographical dictionaries and a unique achievement in Australian history: the coveted Ernest Scott Prize of the University of Melbourne in 1969 and the Encyclopaedia Britannica Award for Literature in 1971 were signs of this recognition.

The breadth of Pike's experience, his warm interest in people of all sorts and conditions and his glowing sincerity, to say nothing of his earthy commonsense and the fact that he had lived in every State except Queensland contributed to make him not only a uniquely qualified social historian but a widely appreciated friend and colleague. He was a superb teacher, always willing to help younger students, even if sometimes deservedly caustic about their elders, and his devotion to scholarship and interest in people led to his taking on more than his share of the chores of examination and advising. The work of the Dictionary will go on along the lines he has laid down, but for Douglas himself there can be no replacement.

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Laurie Fitzhardinge, 'Pike, Douglas Henry (Doug) (1908–1974)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 11 July 2020.

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