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Ann McCallum (1923–2012)

by Malcolm Brown

Ann McCallum, who served her country as a cipher officer during World War II, might ultimately be remembered as a woman who was enveloped in intellectual brilliance: daughter of a professor, married to a professor, and mother to two sons who became professors, another a senior lecturer in theatre, a daughter who became a doctor and another a Supreme Court judge.

McCallum, a free thinker, a social worker by profession, a non-believer who served church social welfare organisations, was a stimulus for such development. In the words of one of her extended family, she demonstrated throughout her life ''great compassion, wisdom, generosity, patience, humour, energy and joy'', providing a home with ''ever-widening circles of family and friends''.

Ann McCallum was born in Brisbane on July 29, 1923, daughter of Henry Priestley, a professor of mathematics at the University of Queensland, and Margery (nee Hewitt). Her father died when she was eight and she was sent to St Aidan's Anglican School for Girls in Brisbane.

When she completed her schooling in 1939, her mother planned to take her to England to visit relatives, but war intervened and in 1940 she was enrolled as a boarder at a Presbyterian Ladies' College where she studied Latin, Greek, German, ancient History and English.

In 1941, McCallum enrolled at the University of Brisbane to study arts. But in 1942 she was recruited by an academic, Dorothy Hill, to join the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service.

Working hard, she also enjoyed an active social life. ''The American sailors were charming people and had marvellous social resources,'' she said. But her protective mother demanded that if there were to be any parties, they were to be at her home.

In 1945, McCallum moved to Sydney and started a social work degree at Sydney University. In 1947, she met Douglas McCallum, who during the war had also fought on the airwaves, helping to intercept and decode Japanese radio traffic.

The couple married in 1948. Ann practised social work but in 1950 they moved to Oxford University where Douglas did a bachelor of philosophy degree. Two sons were born, John in 1952 and Peter in 1953. The couple returned in 1955 for Douglas to join the school of government at Sydney University. They found a home on Sydney's lower north shore. Another son, William, was born in 1956, followed by Kate in 1957. The youngest child, Lucy, was born in 1963.

Once her children were all at school, Ann went to work for the Catholic Family Welfare Bureau, later shifting her employment to the Presbyterian, later Uniting, Church, first at their Harris Centre in Ultimo and then in the central office. This was in spite of the fact she regarded religious belief as inconsistent with rationality, a quality she valued. She was however touched, if also amused, when a nun assured her that God would not let such a good person as Ann go to hell.

Douglas, an avowed anti-communist, was now a celebrated philosopher. The couple opened their home to free thinkers and their gatherings brought together many of Sydney's intellectual and artistic lights of the period: from Dick Spann, Henry Mayer, Owen Harries, Jim McAuley, Ken Inglis and Hugh Atkinson to David Armstrong, Donovan Clarke, Ray Mathew, Peter Hastings, Donald Horne and Gordon Watson.

The McCallum children all went to Cammeray Public School, then to North Sydney Boys High and North Sydney Girls High.

In 1964 Douglas became professor of political science at the University of NSW and was a long-serving chairman of the professorial board and served for many years on the board of the National Institute of Dramatic Art.

All the McCallum children went to the University of NSW, except for Peter, who went to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. John became a senior lecturer at the University of NSW, teaching theatre, and wrote theatre reviews for The Australian. Peter became an associate professor of musicology at the University of Sydney, chaired the academic board, and became a music critic for The Sydney Morning Herald. William became head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona, Kate became a general practitioner specialising in child health, and Lucy a judge.

In retirement, Ann attended classes in Latin, researched her English forebears and worked as a volunteer at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Immensely proud of the achievements of her children, she looked after Douglas in his declining years. He died in 1998. Ann McCallum is survived by her five children, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'McCallum, Ann (1923–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Priestley, Ann

29 July, 1923
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


4 May, 2012 (aged 88)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service