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Douglas Henry (Doug) Kelly (1941–2015)

by Elizabeth Minchin

Douglas Henry Kelly was a proud New Zealander. He completed a BA and an MA (with numerous prizes and awards and, ultimately, first-class honours in Latin and Greek) at Auckland University College (the University of New Zealand). At Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, on a Commonwealth Scholarship for the United Kingdom, he completed a BA with first-class honours in Classics. He returned to Cambridge as a postgraduate student (1969–71) supported by a Charles Oldham Scholarship and a Gonville and Caius Studentship. His PhD was completed in 1975, with a thesis supervised by Guy Griffith (for whom Doug had the highest regard) on Spartan history, which would become his primary research area: ‘Sources and interpretations of Spartan history in the reigns of Agesilaus II, Archidamus III, and Agis III’.

Doug held a Junior Lectureship in Classics at the (by now) University of Auckland (1963) and a Lectureship in Classics at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch (1965–68). He taught history at Macquarie University, Sydney (1971–73 as Lecturer; 1974–79 as Senior Lecturer). In 1980 he took up a position as Lecturer at the ANU; in 1983 he was promoted to Senior Lecturer, a position he held until he retired in 2003. After retirement he was a Visiting Fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the ANU until the end of 2011.

Although Doug’s principal teaching area was Greek history, he also taught Roman history and the classical languages and their literatures. His lectures were well-prepared and always memorable: he knew his sources profoundly well. Associate Professor Tom Hillard (a colleague at Macquarie) recalls how Doug would tease material out of those sources, carefully drawing out larger insights and bringing that world to life. These classes, Hillard observes, provided lifelong lessons in style, methodology and the commitment to enquiry. Jeremy McInerney (a former student and now Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania) singles out Doug’s flair for bringing common sense to his analyses of historical problems; a truly great teacher, Doug understood that what was important was not the answer he might give but the question he asked. He was, McInerney says, an example to us all.

Students who consulted Doug in his office, which housed just part of his vast personal library, appreciated his generosity: he showed infinite kindness to and patience with students (and, indeed, colleagues) who sought his advice or his assistance. With bright and able students, he was more challenging, pushing them to consider and re-consider all the evidence available. His goal as a teacher was above all that his students should learn to be as sceptical as he was with respect to the ancient evidence and, equally, to the claims of modern scholars.

Doug supervised a number of splendid PhD theses. He gave up many hours to careful reading of drafts and to discussion of those drafts with his students. He was, in fact, an ideal supervisor. He himself was extremely well-read across the broad field of ancient world studies, from the Aegean Bronze Age to Late Antiquity and beyond. His memory for what he had read was incomparable. He took nothing for granted. His thoroughness was legendary.

For years after his retirement, Doug contributed to advanced-level and honours teaching at the ANU; he was a highly valued member of Greek and Latin reading groups; and he was a willing and very helpful participant in training programs for volunteer guides in the ANU Classics Museum.

Doug was equally generous with his time in his service to the profession. He was a willing examiner of theses, a willing reviewer of submissions to journals, both Australian and international, a willing contributor to conferences and at HSC study days at Macquarie University. For many years, from its inception, he was a judge of the (then) Australian Society for Classical Studies (ASCS) Annual Essay Prize. He was very well-qualified for this task. This was not Doug’s only contribution to ASCS, the peak body for Classics and ancient history in Australia. In 1993 he was elected President of the Australian Society for Classical Studies and served in that role until the end of 1998, representing the society, its interests and its members across the country.

Doug’s father had worked on the wharves in Auckland in the 1950s, at a time of considerable industrial unrest. Doug himself recalled the hardships of striking workers and their families, his own included. These experiences in his formative years of the tensions between management and worker stayed with him, in his research as well as in his working life. He was a deeply committed unionist. It is therefore not surprising that he became President of the ANU branch of the National Tertiary Education Union in 1996. He held that position for a remarkable eight years, until his retirement in 2003. Between the years 1998 and 2003, he was also Division President, representing the ACT on the National Executive of the NTEU. This was a particularly difficult time in universities. Government spending on tertiary education had been cut, and harsh cuts within universities were proposed and in many cases put into effect. ANU was no exception. Doug was strong and uncompromising in his representation of the interests of staff, both academic and general staff, who faced cuts or heavier workloads as a consequence of those cuts. In 2002 he was elected Life Member of the NTEU, in recognition of his efforts on behalf of all workers within the University. In nominating Doug for this honour, the ANU branch wrote ‘it is hard to imagine that anybody could have done a better job of being Branch President … during the long periods of conflict with the management of the ANU … Frankly, it is almost frightening to think of the damage that could have been done to the ANU if Doug had not been there.’

Doug did not make his own students suffer for his commitment to the NTEU. In the year in which the NTEU had voted that members should withhold examination results from the university administration Doug was, of course, bound by this decision. But, as one of his students, Fiona Manning, recalls, he made time to ring each member of each of his classes at the end of that semester and to tell them their results—enabling their lives to go on.

Although the principal focus of Doug’s research has been the history of Sparta, for which he is recognised internationally (recently and most notably by Professor Stephen Hodkinson, Director of the Centre for Spartan and Peloponnesian Studies at the University of Nottingham, who has described his work on Sparta as ‘myth-busting’ and ‘game-changing’), he published a number of papers on Athenian, Roman, and Byzantine history. Doug is a leading contributor to Conflict in Ancient Greece and Rome (ABC Clio), which he co-edited with Dr Iain Spence and Dr Peter Londey (ANU). His significant contribution to the study of the ancient world, however, will be his commentary on Xenophon’s Hellenica— that seven-book history, centred on Sparta, that takes the reader from 411 BC (through the later years of the Peloponnesian War) to the Battle of Mantinea (362 BC). Doug’s manuscript, almost in final form, the product of four decades of careful research, was entrusted to his great friends Dr James McDonald (one of Doug’s postgraduate students) and Professor Gregory Horsley (UNE).

Doug spent the last two years of his life contending, always stoically, with two incurable forms of cancer. Shortly before he died, the (now) Australasian Society for Classical Studies was able to announce that its Annual Essay Prize for Australian undergraduates would thereafter be known as the ASCS Douglas Kelly Australian Essay Prize, in recognition of Doug’s long record of service to Classics and ancient history as well as to the society itself—and, indeed, it testifies to the great respect and warm affection in which he is held by all Australasian classicists.

Doug is survived by his wife, Anne, son Simon and partner Rachael, and daughter Jessica.

Citation details

Elizabeth Minchin, 'Kelly, Douglas Henry (Doug) (1941–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 April, 1941
New Zealand


15 December, 2015 (aged 74)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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