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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Alan Noel Gray (1946–2001)

by Len Smith

Alan Noel Gray was born in Newcastle on 31 May 1946 to parents, Les and Dulcie Gray. He had a long association with The Australian National University as a student, academic and teacher. He had an extraordinary range of talents, interests and concerns, and his contribution to society through his research, publications and teaching has been immeasurable. He was a scientist and an activist, a statistician and a social critic.

Alan's association with ANU began when he left Newcastle on a scholarship to undertake a Bachelor of Arts (Oriental Studies). It was here that he met his first wife Imme. They had three children, Edith, Andrew and Kathleen.

After that degree, Alan went on to complete a degree in statistics and to work at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It was there that Alan began his quest to improve Aboriginal statistics. Alan contributed definitively to the understanding of the dynamics of the Aboriginal population, of the perplexing Aboriginal census enumerations, and of the urgent need to remedy the deficiencies in information about the social and economic condition of Aboriginal people.

He played a key role in applying pressure to the Federal and State bureaucracies to improve their data collections, and convened a federal-state working group on improving Aboriginal health statistics. Both inside and outside ABS he was a persistent critic of its facile explanations of the fluctuating numbers of Aborigines enumerated at the census, backing his criticisms with sound research.

In the early 1980s, Alan undertook a PhD in the Demography Department at ANU, studying Aboriginal fertility transition. In the course of his work with the inadequate Aboriginal data, he became a leading world exponent of incomplete data methods. He was the pre-eminent scholar of Australian indigenous demography, a position that he held until the time of his death. His death leaves a great gap in Australian demography that will be extremely difficult to fill.

In 1985 Alan began an appointment at the then Department of Demography, Research School of Social Sciences, and from 1988, an appointment at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH). During this period, Alan went back to the Aboriginal communities, helping them to organise their own research. In Campbelltown, working with Graham Henderson from the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and with Aboriginal identities Shane Houston and Mary Williams, he carried out one of the most comprehensive demographic and health surveys of an Aboriginal community ever undertaken.

Alan also had a strong commitment to the advancement of young scholars in the field of demography and this was reflected in his teaching. At NCEPH, Alan's service included Convener of Graduate Studies in Epidemiology and Population Health, and Coordinator of the Graduate Program. From 1991 to 1996 Alan held the positions of Fellow in the Demography Program, RSSS, Convener of the Graduate Program in Demography, and Director of Graduate Studies in Demography, NCDS. He was a great teacher. He served on the panels of 23 PhD students at ANU and taught many courses in the Graduate Programs with which he was involved. He was highly regarded by his students.

Alan also achieved a reputation for his work on the countries of our region: Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh. In 1996 Alan left the ANU to work at The Population Council, Dhaka, and in 1997, began an appointment at the Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, Thailand. At this time Alan married Rossarin, a fellow demographer, friend and companion. During this period away from Australia, Alan maintained his links with the ANU as an Associate of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, where he continued his work on the Aboriginal population.

Alan had several discoveries to his credit. His strengths in formal statistical and demographic methods and his great capacity for fieldwork in Aboriginal communities resulted in the first characterisation, in the 1980s, of the extraordinary level of mortality among Aboriginal adults in their 30s and 40s, especially from cardiovascular disease, which had not been previously identified. Later, Alan was again the first to identify and characterise the decline in Aboriginal fertility, and the unique pattern of Aboriginal family formation associated with it. He was alone in theorising about the future of the population, and, in a series of highly original papers, identified and characterised the current and future contribution of the extraordinary rate of outmarriage of both Aboriginal men and women to the explosive growth of the Aboriginal population.

Alan's questioning of the conventional, his heartfelt concern for justice and truth, and his uncommon talent as a scientist left little room for the easy compromise. We need more people like that. The demography profession in Australia owes a great debt to Alan Gray and we shall not forget his work, the man or his humanity. He is greatly missed by his wife, children, friends and colleagues.

Original publication

Citation details

Len Smith, 'Gray, Alan Noel (1946–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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