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Kenneth Stanley (Ken) Inglis (1929–2017)

by Frank Bongiorno

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Emeritus Professor Ken Inglis, who died on 1 December 2017, was a member of that impressive group of Australian historians who emerged from the History Department at the University of Melbourne in the years immediately following World War II. He was arguably the greatest of them. The Melbourne School, as it became known, is often seen as the creation of the leadership of Max Crawford, who succeeded Ernest Scott as professor in 1937, but it was equally the product of a city and its reform‑minded intellectual culture.

Ken appreciated the worth of this culture, as well as the accomplishments of the Melbourne School, but he also held himself a few paces apart from it. As Robert Menzies said of himself, Ken was ‘not born to the purple’. Ken once told me that as an academic, he had been fortunate enough to live the kind of life that his small businessman father would have liked for himself: that of a scholar. Stan Inglis was a timber merchant whose business had faltered during the Depression, and the family moved from Heidelberg to more humble circumstances in Preston. Unlike several of those who made their mark as historians in his generation, Ken was a product of the state system, matriculating from Melbourne High School after becoming dux of Northcote High in 1944. His involvement in the Student Christian Movement also set him apart from many of the radicals studying at the university in the late 1940s, several of them returned servicemen, and a few—like his future wife, Amirah Gust, and her first husband, Ian Turner—active communists.

He was also ambivalent about the Melbourne School’s emphasis on the theory and method of history, which Ken came to recognise as potentially disabling for anyone with aspirations to write books who took it too much to heart. Ken’s first ambition was to become a journalist, but he was discouraged by a newspaper editor who warned of the likely difficulties of finding a job in that profession at a time when so many returned servicemen would be looking to re-establish themselves. I was amused when I learned recently from Peter Browne at ‘A Laconic Colloquium’, held in Ken’s honour, that he had been inspired in his desire to become a journalist by reading Isobel Ann Shead’s Sandy, the story of a boy who becomes a reporter. This was also my father’s favourite book as a child— he would have been half a dozen years older than Ken—and I had also enjoyed it, briefly contemplating that I might follow in Sandy’s footsteps. Perhaps the book has been more successful at producing historians than journalists.

But in many ways, Ken was both. Alongside all those history books and scholarly articles, he produced a distinguished body of journalism, most famously in Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation. Among his earliest books is his much-admired study of The Stuart Case. His interest in the fate of Max Stuart arose from his journalism while working as a young historian at the University of Adelaide. Ken was heavily involved in the successful campaign to save Stuart, an Aboriginal circus worker accused of raping and murdering a young girl, from the gallows. But Ken’s commitment as a public intellectual—and one who wrote on a wide range of issues—did not seem to detract at all from his work as a scholar and teacher. Indeed, his historical writing, while observing all the academic conventions, had about it a liveliness commonly associated with the high-quality journalism that Ken so enjoyed in magazines such as the New Yorker.

Ken’s books cover an extraordinary range, from his earliest on the Hospital and Community: A History of the Royal Melbourne Hospital (1958)—which came from his Master of Arts thesis—through the Oxford doctoral dissertation published as Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England (1963) to his later works on the ABC, war memorials and the Dunera migrants. His remarkable social history, The Australian Colonists: An Exploration of Social History (1974), seemed old-fashioned to some readers amid the new left explosions of the 1970s, and it admittedly still looked a little that way to my 20-year-old self when I first read it in the summer of 1988–89. Yet it has really had a quite remarkable ‘career’—so many of its concerns with public commemoration and collective memory have moved to centre-stage; I write these words at the end of an Australia Day weekend that has seen contention over the place of 26 January in the nation’s calendar. Ken was writing with curiosity and insight about this topic over 50 years ago, and he turned to national days and monuments more generally in The Australian Colonists. Melbourne University Press published a paperback version in 1993. I am the proud owner of a copy signed by Ken and presented to me that May, on my 24th birthday.

As a scholar, Ken will probably be recalled most often in Australia as a ground-breaking historian of the Anzac Legend, and both nationally and internationally as the author of Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998). This monumental and much-honoured book crowned decades of research and reflection on what the historical study of war memorials could tell us about the society that had built them. As Ken explained at the beginning of that study, his curiosity about the subject went back to his childhood, but there was also in this engagement a concern with the place of religiosity in modern societies that also found expression in his early scholarly work and journalistic contributions. We can now recognise Ken’s famous 1965 Meanjin article on ‘The Anzac Tradition’ as the foundation on which a whole field of Australian research—including his own—would be built. And when considered alongside the work of his great friend and colleague Bill Gammage, we can also discern a much broader cultural influence that would recast how Australians understood their relationship to the Great War and its legacies.

To focus on Ken’s scholarly work in this way fails to do his career justice, since so much of his activity was concerned with creating opportunities for others. He did so in a range of university settings that was wide even by the more peripatetic standards of many of the rising academics of his generation. After bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Melbourne and an Oxford doctorate supervised formally by G.D.H. Cole, but informally and more substantially by Asa Briggs, Ken was appointed to the Department of History of the University of Adelaide in 1956. Here, he established an exemplary reputation as a teacher, scholar and public intellectual. Manning Clark then recruited him to the Department of History in the School of General Studies at The Australian National University, where Ken worked from late 1962, soon being appointed to that department’s second chair. In 1967 he went to the University of Papua and New Guinea as Foundation Professor of History, and he was subsequently that university’s second Vice-Chancellor (1972–75). Ken was admired in this leadership role, but he also decided that the administrative path was not one that he wanted to follow. He returned to the ANU as Professor of History in the Research School of Social Sciences in 1975, went to Harvard University as Visiting Professor of Australian Studies in 1982, and retired from the ANU in 1994 as W.K. Hancock Professor of History.

It would be stating the obvious to point out that the young and brilliant ANU history professor could have pursued a perfectly comfortable and conventionally rewarding career with less difficulty in Canberra than Port Moresby. But I do recall one thing he told me about his and Amirah’s time there that might provide a clue as to why they went in the first place. In the years that followed, he said, whenever they heard someone say that something was ‘true’, they would ask themselves: ‘Would it be true in PNG?’

Ken did not seek to cut a figure on the stage as some kind of media celebrity. He was a humble man, but also generous in giving his time and talents to collective projects did much to raise the profile of the profession, to develop its promising research and scholars, and to show the country that historians had valuable things to contribute to its pool of knowledge and understanding. Many readers of Footnotes will already be familiar with Ken’s role as a champion of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, a great collective endeavour that was entirely in keeping with his own view of how historians might work together. Ken was Chair of the ADB editorial board from 1977 until 1996. Similarly, his leadership of the multi-volume bicentennial project, Australians: A Historical Library, with its innovative slice method in the volumes on 1838, 1888 and 1938, was a powerful contribution to the profession. It is a source of pleasure to many, and will be of profit to thousands of scholars, that the entire set has now been digitised and is available on the website of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, of which Ken was a fellow. This will bring a great—yet in many ways underestimated—scholarly enterprise to the attention of new audiences.

I last saw Ken at his home in Melbourne in late September 2017, just a few weeks before his death. A Richmond supporter, he was much looking forward to the grand final about to be held, the first his Tigers had contested for 35 years (and they won). Personally, I am not alone in owing Ken a great debt. With the late Barry Smith, he was a conscientious and supportive PhD supervisor who taught me much about the writing craft. He was also a model for anyone interested in have an impact beyond the Academy, in the wider world of ideas, and he encouraged me to think in terms of how I could contribute to public debate. He was an advocate of his students’ wares, too—helping me, as he had others, to get my first book published. And he continued to take an interest in the activities of his former students. I was deeply touched when, in his wheelchair, he attended an event at Reading’s Bookshop in Melbourne to mark the publication of a book of mine. He was a wise, kind and generous man, who will be remembered not only for his great achievements as a scholar, but for the rare personal qualities that made him an inspiration to so many— and not just within universities.

Ken was amused and delighted when, as a PhD student, I produced a draft that unwittingly quoted his grandfather W.J. Inglis, a Melbourne carpenter. Testifying before a royal commission on factories and shops just after the turn of the century, Inglis had complained about the decline of his trade as regards ‘all round men’ due to the decline of the apprenticeship system. The trend was ‘detrimental to the workers, and gets the man into the way of working on one line’, Inglis explained. No one could accuse his grandson of only ‘working on one line’. ‘An absolute champion’, an economist of my (and Ken’s) acquaintance told me a few months before Ken’s death. I can only agree. 

*An earlier version of this obituary appeared in Biography Footnotes 8(5) (2008).

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Citation details

Frank Bongiorno, 'Inglis, Kenneth Stanley (Ken) (1929–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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