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Noel George Butlin (1921–1991)

by Graeme Snooks

Noel George Butlin, foundation Professor of Economic History in the Institute from 1962 until 1986, died in the early hours of Tuesday 2 April. With his death the ANU lost one of its most accomplished scholars.

Born on 19 December 1921, Noel Butlin was educated at Maitland Boys' High School and the University of Sydney where he obtained a first-class honours degree in economics and was awarded the University Medal in 1942. Between 1942 and 1946 he was employed by the Federal Public Service in a variety of challenging capacities, including the posts of Assistant Economic Adviser to the Australian High Commissioner in London in 1943 and 1944, and Assistant to the Interim Chairman of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation in Washington D.C. in 1944 and 1945. This was followed by a lectureship in economic history at the University of Sydney from 1946 to 1949, and a further two years as a Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard University. With the acceptance of a Senior Research Fellowship in Economics at the ANU in 1951, he began a forty-year association with this University during which he became Reader in Economics (1954 to 1962), Professor of Economic History (1962 to 1986), University Fellow, and finally Visiting Fellow in Economics. His major contributions to ANU included the establishment of an endowed Chair in Economic History, the Archives of Business and Labour, and the RSSS computer system. During this time he also held the posts of Research Associate, Department of Applied Economics, Cambridge (1961); Irving Fisher Professor of Economics, Yale (1967/68); Director, Botany Bay Project (1974 to 1975); Professor of Australian Studies, Harvard (1979/80). He was a fellow of both the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia and the British Academy.

Noel was one of the most outstanding Australian social scientists of his generation, and one of the major international figures in economic history. His impact on historical scholarship in Australia has been profound. Before the publication of his major book Investment in Australian Economic Development (1964), historians saw Australia's past almost solely in terms of rural development. Noel, however, was able to show that, as early as the second half of the nineteenth century, more investment was being undertaken in urban than in rural areas, and that the public sector was a major player in this process. In doing so he demonstrated that Australian economic development was not merely a passive response to overseas forces, but that it owed much to decisions being made in Australia by Australians: he saw us playing a more independent role in world economic affairs than others had recognised. With the widespread adoption of Noel's conclusions by other social scientists, there emerged in the 1960s and 1970s a stronger sense of Australian economic identity. From the mid 1960s until the early 1980s, Noel was actively involved in developing further a number of important themes that had emerged in his early work, and in applying these themes—particularly the role of the public sector (Government and Capitalism, 1982)—to other periods.

Noel's research in the 1980s focused upon the Australian economy from the earliest Aboriginal migrations to the mid nineteenth century. This work has surfaced over the last decade in a series of working papers, articles, and monographs (Our Original Aggression, 1983) and, at the time of his death, was being reworked by Noel to form a two-volume economic history of Australia prior to 1850. A central theme in this history is the contrast between two economic systems—one ancient, possibly 60,000 or so years old; and the other young, arguably Europe's most recent—together with the process by which economic control of Australia passed from Aboriginal to European hands. This manuscript, which Noel was working on right up to the day of his death (he insisted on taking his computer to hospital), will be published next year. This masterly intellectual exercise will undoubtedly have a profound impact upon scholarship for years to cone. It may be the end of an era in the Australian economic history profession, but is not the end of the intellectual influence of Noel George Butlin.

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Citation details

Graeme Snooks, 'Butlin, Noel George (1921–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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