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Donald William (Don) Baker (1922–2007)

by Bruce Kent and Bob Gollan

from Sydney Morning Herald

The historian and author Don Baker was perhaps a rare thing, a good teacher with a whimsical sense of humour. He enlivened lessons and enlightened students over many years at the Australian National University. He was also a free spirit and a judicious researcher, and despite an apparently austere demeanour, kindly and sociable to a fault.

Donald William Archdall Baker was a champion of academic independence. He regarded commercialism, bureaucracy and excessive democracy as inimical to the academic enterprise. He had little time for the quasi-commercial bureaucrats of tertiary education and was renowned for the alacrity with which, as acting head of department, he wound up staff meetings.

His formal association with ANU ran from 1949 until his retirement as a reader in 1987. He continued researching and writing as a visiting fellow in the history department for more than a decade.

Outside the university, Baker was a noted Australian historian whose books shed light on the religious and secular politics of colonial Australia and the early relationship between settlers and Aborigines.

His father, Donald, was Anglican bishop of Bendigo and principal of Ridley College, a Melbourne theological seminary, and his mother, Rosa, was the daughter of Mervyn Archdall, a leading Sydney evangelical. Baker went to Geelong Grammar School and Melbourne University.

As a 19-year-old undergraduate, he registered as a conscientious objector when he enlisted in 1941 and volunteered for the Australian Army Medical Corps. The next four years of his life were spent largely in New Guinea and Bougainville with the Malaria Control Unit.

He returned to Australia in 1946 and resumed his studies. He took Manning Clark's inaugural Australian history course and completed his degree with first class honours. By 1949 he had become a lecturer in Canberra, where he was joined a year later by Clark, who took over the chair of history at the then Canberra University College.

He welcomed a colleague, Professor Bob Gollan, to the university in 1953 in typical fashion — a party at home with a keg in the kitchen and a ribald singalong.

There are many stories of harmless fun. Baker decided that Gollan needed a car, so they bought a black, 1939 Cadillac for £300. It ended its colourful life by rolling, driverless, down a Canberra hill and crashing into a home. As it was October 1957, the startled residents ran outside, shouting "Sputnik, Sputnik".

In the 1970s Baker's continued dislike of war led to his arrest at a Vietnam moratorium rally.

After he had completed his master's thesis on the development of NSW land settlement in the 1860s, he began research in NSW and England into John Dunmore Lang, an early immigrant he described as a "Presbyterian minister, politician, educationist, immigration organiser, historian, anthropologist, journalist and gaol-bird".

In 1985 this came to fruition as Days of Wrath: A Life of John Dunmore Lang, dedicated to "Manning Clark, teacher and friend". In the book, Baker illuminated the intense sectarianism of colonial society, which saw Lang make eight journeys back to Britain to recruit clergymen and to attract Protestants to counterbalance Irish Catholic immigration.

In his later years, Baker's research turned to documentary evidence of the impact of white settlement on indigenous Australians.

His 1997 book, The Civilised Surveyor: Thomas Mitchell and the Australian Aborigines, using Mitchell's journals of expeditions as surveyor-general in the interior of NSW and southern Queensland in the 1830s and 1840s, revealed the relatively sympathetic, if pessimistic, reaction of sophisticated administrators such as Mitchell to the plight of indigenous people.

Baker contrasted this with the acquisitive and sometimes murderous insouciance of the urban riff-raff and remittance men who followed in Mitchell's wake.

Baker is survived by Pat White, his partner since 1972, and Judy and Liese, children of his 1945 marriage to Shirley Nichols; by Val Baker, his second wife, and their children, Richard, Simon, Sally and Natalie. Shirley died in 1965, and Tony, his oldest son, died in 1968.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Donald William (Don) Baker

View the list of ADB articles written by Donald William (Don) Baker

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bruce Kent and Bob Gollan, 'Baker, Donald William (Don) (1922–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 September, 1922
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


19 February, 2007 (aged 84)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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