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Jan Willem de Jong (1921–2000)

by Paul Kauffman

Professor Jan Willem de Jong, an ANU professor who had a significant influence on my life, died on 22 January in Canberra and was cremated here on Thursday 27 January 2000, at the age of 78. He was born in The Netherlands on 15 February 1921.

Prof de Jong first studied mathematics and Chinese at the prestigious Leiden University in Holland. His doctorate, written in French, was on Mahayana Buddhism, and he had an immense knowledge of European and Asian languages. He was made a Professor at Leiden at a very young age, and was a founding editor of the Indo-Iranian Journal, a position he held for almost all of his adult life.

In the 1960s, Australia benefited from the far-sighted educational and research policies of the Menzies Government. Unlike today, Australia's professorial salaries, in real terms, were world competitive and, with eloquent and skilled founding intellectuals like Dr H. C. Coombs, there was an optimism and a sense of growth. The ANU was able to recruit some of the best scholars in the world, particularly in science, Asian studies and some areas of the humanities. Prof de Jong was appointed as Head of the Department of South Asian and Buddhist Studies at ANU, which included Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, in 1965. He was also Head of the Department of Chinese during its early years.

Prof de Jong was completely familiar with the Buddhist canon in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and Mongolian versions. He reviewed or was familiar with, every significant book published on Buddhist studies in any European or Asian language during the course of the 20th century. He was the world's expert on classical Tibetan. Eminent academics considered him an especially gifted scholar. He was a life-long friend of many scholars, including Edward Conze, the Buddhist specialist. He was a visitor to Harvard University and College de France. He published 820 articles in French, English and Japanese. His lectures in Japan were attended by packed audiences. The Morrison lecture on Buddhism, delivered when he first came to the ANU, was described in the Journal of American Oriental Studies as "worth its weight in gold".

Prof de Jong was a very private person. He continued to live and work in Canberra after his retirement from ANU in 1986. He is survived by his wife Giselle, his son Gaspard, head of a Dutch medical institute, and his two daughters Therese and Henriette, who live in Maitland and Newcastle, their spouses, and his eight grandchildren.

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Citation details

Paul Kauffman, 'de Jong, Jan Willem (1921–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1921


22 January, 2000 (aged 78)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.