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Stephen Jonathan (Steve) Dowrick (1953–2013)

by Bruce Chapman and Maria Racionero

Steve Dowrick, 1986 [detail]

Steve Dowrick, 1986 [detail]

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-560

Stephen Jonathan Dowrick was born on 7 May 1953 in Dublin, Ireland, and died in Canberra on the 3 August 2013 from brain cancer. Steve became one of Australia’s finest economics professors and published some of the most influential and path-breaking papers in the world’s best journals. If intellectual contribution is the only criterion for success, Steve would have been right at the top of the Australian economics pyramid; not alone, but with just a handful of revered colleagues.

But Steve’s contribution to humankind, the quality of his personal and professional relationships, and his life activities go far beyond his intellectual influence, extraordinary as that was. A short traverse of Steve’s early life is instructive and illustrative of his values, in particular with regard to matters of distributional fairness.

His father Frank had a strong sense of moral vocation in his profession as a law academic (jurisprudence being his speciality), which was imbued partly from his own father, a Unitarian lay preacher. Steve was nurtured throughout childhood by his devoted and warm mother, Cherry. He had two brothers, Christopher and Nicholas, both of whom remained close to Steve and engaged with him through his long illness. All three attended a Quaker school in York, with a strong emphasis on practical social action that clearly reinforced Steve’s commitment to collective integrity.

The importance of this background can be seen by traversing the paths that he took in his 20s. When he finished high school (as dux) he was offered a scholarship at Cambridge University. Before beginning, he undertook volunteer work for about a year at Blackfriar’s Settlement, Southwark, London, where his job was driving a van for a project named ‘Workshop for the Disabled’.

Soon after beginning studies in physics at Cambridge, it became clear that he chose to actively participate in issues of social and political justice. He was soon to incur the antagonism of the authorities and was suspended indefinitely from classes for obstructing a visit to Cambridge by the President of the Greek ‘Junta’, the activities of which offended Steve morally and ethically.

His friend Steve Clarke, who was also in trouble for anti-authoritarian activities, invited Steve Dowrick to visit him in South Wales. Once there he was (easily) persuaded to take on the job of a community development officer in a project known as ‘Polypill’, located in a poor dockside suburb in Newport.

There his activities included supporting and/or representing disadvantaged residents at public inquiries on town planning issues, teaching children photography, producing a community newspaper on behalf of the local poor, and organising local action groups aimed at diminishing many forms of inequity. He did this work selflessly and with commitment for over six years because of his strong personal sense of the importance of social justice.

Steve Clarke has written that Steve’s contact with the people of Newport, and in the ‘workhouse’ in London, gave him deep insights into ordinary lives and the stress the poor encounter in surviving pressures from the bureaucracy and those more powerful than themselves. Steve’s engagement with the issue of equality was writ large in all his behaviour.

In 1982, Steve returned to Cambridge University, this time to study economics. It was there in 1983 that he met Deborah Mitchell, an Australian student, and they married in York in 1984. After Steve completed his PhD at the University of Warwick, they moved to Canberra. Deborah was a Professor at ANU, in the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute. They raised two children, Helen and Lydia, born in 1986 and 1987. Steve and Deborah’s adult daughters inherited their father’s compassion and intelligence and are both strong testament to the parental influences of nature and nurture.

The welfare of his family was as critical an aspect of Steve’s character as his concern for the underprivileged, and he was so much more than a loving and devoted father. He actively involved himself totally in his daughters’ education and sporting worlds. Deborah has said that he was the kind of dad who would rather spend time with Helen and Lydia at night and set his alarm for 4.30 am the next morning to attend to academic business.

Steve held several positions at the ANU Research School of Social Sciences from 1988, and in 1996 he became Professor of Economics and Head of Department at the Faculty of Economics and Commerce.

He is widely acknowledged as one of the most brilliant economists the ANU has been blessed with, and managed to produce excellent research while simultaneously being recognised as a wonderful teacher, devoted supervisor and a great mentor. His overall capacities as a social science researcher were aptly recognised with his election as a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1996.

As a teacher, Steve was superb and egalitarian. Course content was designed to inspire those who might have otherwise been disengaged, while also stretching the minds of the best. Despite the many demands on his time Steve was an involved PhD supervisor of many, a large number of whom chose academia, which bears testimony to his influence.

Steve was a judicious leader for many and a very active proponent of equality for female economists. He contributed considerably in raising the profile of women, and helped many young academics of both genders achieve their aspirations, not least by inspiring confidence and self-esteem. At the 8 March 2013 ANU International Women’s Day celebration, his contributions were fittingly recognised with a Gender Champion Award.

Steve’s colleagues have spoken of his professional excellence, how he contributed to all aspects of department life, and was an exceptional role model for both junior and senior academics. He was always present and helpful, and constantly interested in understanding what others were working on, no matter how removed the topics were from his own many areas of expertise.

His research focused largely on areas aligned with his strong values of equity and concern with the disadvantaged, those personal characteristics evident throughout his life. These contributions covered many subjects, including the determinants of economic growth differences between countries, fertility and income, and the origins and nature of technological change. With John Quiggin, Steve developed a multilateral welfare index to shed light on global income inequality.

Steve’s abundant sense of humour was appreciated by all who knew him. It took forms to suit all ages: slapstick for toddlers; quips for eye-rolling teenagers; and dry, cerebral wit for colleagues. And he did not leave this playfulness behind, even in the dark days of his increasingly poor condition.

In the last few months, due to his neurological condition, the nursing staff would ask questions to check on his alertness, a usual one being ‘who is the Prime Minister?’. When asked this on the eve of the resurrection of Kevin Rudd as PM, Steve responded, ‘It’s Julia Gillard, but ask me again tomorrow and I will probably have a different answer. It will still be correct.’

In preparing this obituary, we have been inundated with messages of grief, appreciation and extraordinary affection for Steve. Beyond his remarkable academic economics research and teaching there has been pervasive recognition of Steve Dowrick’s compassion, his active engagement in causes of social justice, his complete disregard of the superficialities of status and rank, and his affable embrace of humour, even in the presence of distressingly deficient health.

The despondency that has engulfed so many as a result of Steve’s death is testimony to these qualities. And, over the last few years, his closest friends have had the privilege of witnessing—close up and personally— Deborah Mitchell’s complete devotion to, and care of, her lifetime partner; to us, this is what commitment, love and respect can really look like.

Steve Dowrick was a very special person, without vanity, self-aggrandisement or egotism, and with a unique blend of intelligence, kindness and commitment to equality and family. We in the Australian economics community, and far beyond, are so sad to have lost him, so lucky to have known him.

* Originally published in the Academy of the Social Sciences Annual Report 2013.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bruce Chapman and Maria Racionero, 'Dowrick, Stephen Jonathan (Steve) (1953–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Steve Dowrick, 1986 [detail]

Steve Dowrick, 1986 [detail]

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-560

Life Summary [details]


7 May, 1953
Dublin, Ireland


3 August, 2013 (aged 60)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (brain)

Cultural Heritage

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