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Edward Charles (Ted) Chapman (1929–2001)

by Ian Wilson

The sudden death of Edward Charles (Ted) Chapman deprived Australia of one of the country's best known and experienced experts on Thailand, the Mekong region and mainland Southeast Asia.

He was an early director of the National Thai Studies Centre. Most recently he had directed the International Mekong Research Network and its Australian precursor, linking and informing over five hundred to several hundred academic and government experts working in the field. There were few names on the circulation list not known personally to Ted and tributes have flowed in from far afield since his death on 31 July.

Ted Chapman was educated at the University of Sydney as a geographer and was well grounded in both the human and physical aspects of the field. He graduated in 1955 with an MA Honours and picked up an education diploma along the way. His first research topic was into development in Australia's Northern Territory, still a frontier environment then and the source of some of his best dinnertime stories. Between 1954 and 1969 he taught at the University of New England, Armidale with two terms on a visiting appointment at Ohio State University in Columbus. He joined the Geography Department at The Australian National University in 1970, retiring as Reader in 1994. A dedicated teacher whose schedule included frequent fieldwork with his students, he still managed to amass a list of committee memberships and administrative appointments that daunted his fellows. He became head of his department, Deputy Dean and Acting Dean, and represented the ANU on numerous academic bodies and committees advising government. It was as an adviser and researcher on Thailand development that he began his long involvement with the Southeast Asian region in the mid-1960s. His interests in northern Thailand he shared with a research anthropologist, the late Dr Gehan Wijeyewardene of ANU, and the Thai Yunnan Project Newsletter and several International Thai Studies Conferences came out of the joint interests of a handful of ANU scholars and their contacts in the region and overseas.

Thus, both the newsletter, the network and the partial overlaps with the National Thai Studies Centre should be seen as important events in the better understanding of Thailand and the Mekong Subregion when some other aspects of Australia's involvement were, on occasion, less peaceful.

Ted Chapman's involvement certainly did not slacken after retiring from his teaching post.

He became an inveterate traveller and enhanced his knowledge of the people and conditions in Thailand and the neighbourhood. He held several research grants into aspects of development and cooperation among the riparian states of the Mekong. He also took on a range of consultancies to organise regional conferences, chair the proceedings and then see the papers through to publication. This was no easy task since many arrived in poor shape and should have been listed as "by ... as told to Ted Chapman".

Travel was rough and food sometimes indifferent but he survived on a safe but standard diet of chicken and rice. Only on his final journey did he show signs of wear and his colleagues realised early this year that he may have to curtail his travels.

Ted was a very pleasant and informative companion on these trips, always quick with the revealing anecdote or story. He showed an amazing passion for minute details of livestock movements, forage practices and changes in upland cultivation that left others gasping.

Yet he had a wry wit and sense of the ironic which no doubt carried him through his many hours of committee work and sitting at a remote road junction counting cattle or pigs or even chickens.

Once or twice his good humour deserted him, as when a young delta Vietnamese boatswoman, in Viet Cong pyjamas, failed to make adjustments for his size and weight, depositing him in a thankfully shallow stretch of the river that had been so much the core of his academic studies. Ted Chapman's work will continue to inform later generations of students and scholars and his devotion to solid field research should inspire them.

His many friends and colleagues will miss him deeply but none more than his family and that of Dongmei Yang. His mark on Thai and Mekong studies will be a fitting memorial.

Original publication

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Citation details

Ian Wilson, 'Chapman, Edward Charles (Ted) (1929–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

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