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Douglas Henry (Doug) Pike (1908–1974)

by J. A. La Nauze

from Australian Historical Studies

Douglas Pike, General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was struck down by cerebral thrombosis early in November 1973. He died in the Canberra Hospital on 19 May 1974.

He would have conceded that some account of his life and work should be in print, since he could not have denied that his name must appear in any future history of Australian historiography. But he would have preferred that it should begin 'PIKE, DOUGLAS HENRY (1908-1974), station worker, clergyman, historian, editor ...', that every statement of fact should be checked from the documents, and that it should exemplify Verlaine's dictum, 'Take rhetoric and wring its neck'. One cannot expect, in these hasty and inadequate notes, to meet his standards.

He was born on 3 November 1908 in Tushan, Western China, the son of Douglas and Louise Pike, Australian-born Baptist missionaries with the China Inland Mission. They came home on furlough when he was an infant, and his story that he made an appropriate biographical judgment upon a prominent Australian of the time while being held in his arms may well be true. He was educated in the China Inland Mission school at what was then known as Chefoo, Northern China, and came by himself to Australia towards the end of 1924. His father was killed by bandits in China in 1929; his mother stayed on until the mid-century.

In Melbourne Douglas Pike began as a junior state-school teacher and entered upon an Arts course at the University; but for personal and family reasons he left Melbourne in 1926 to work on the land in New South Wales. From early 1927 he was working on a station, 'The Rivers', near Merriwa and later was overseer on another nearby station, 'Collaroy'. For a while during the Depression he managed a religious printery in Sydney. His country life ended in mid-1938 when, it seems, renewal of contacts with those who shared the beliefs and ideals of his parents turned his mind to a career as a minister of religion. He would sometimes talk to friends about his country years which had taught him some stern things about life, and about types of men; and it is reported that on one of the few occasions when he did openly acknowledge some pride of achievement he said 'I can kill, skin and dress a lamb in a minute "forty seconds'. It also pleased him to recall that he had been an expert shearer and a competent surveyor's assistant.

Returning to Melbourne in September 1938, Douglas Pike entered the Church of Christ College at Glen Iris, where he spent three years. In November 1941 he was married to Olive, daughter of the Rev.T. Hagger. There were two sons of this most happy marriage. Immediately after his ordination he went to Adelaide, where his second and last ministry was at the Glenelg Church. He entered upon an Honours course in History at the University of Adelaide while pursuing his ministerial duties, graduating in 1947 with first-class honours and the Tinline scholarship; 'the most mature student I have ever taught', wrote Jerry Portus, his mentor and friend, and he was not referring simply to years of age. But some churches in those days did not look happily upon the peculiar ideas which ministers who pursued academic studies were apt to acquire. There were some doubts; and in 1948, with characteristic intellectual honesty, and without pros­pects, Pike resigned his ministry to become (like Portus himself) 'a parson who has found the doctrinal way too strait'. Next day Portus offered him a temporary lectureship in History, for his colleague Wilfred Oldham had suddenly fallen ill and immediate help was needed. So, at the age of nearly 40, Pike began an academic career.

There followed in 1949 a temporary lectureship in Perth, where Alexander needed a replacement for a colleague, and then for himself, during periods of sabbatical leave. It was intended to be for two years; but unforeseen changes in the staffing position in Adelaide led to Pike's return as a Reader before the end of 1950. It tells a good deal about the impression he made upon experienced academics that both Alexander and Portus should have strongly backed him for this senior position despite his brief period as a university teacher. W. G. K. Duncan had succeeded Portus as professor of History and Political Science, and Pike was effectively in charge of the history side until late in 1954 when Stretton arrived to be head of a newly-separated department. In 1960 Pike moved to Tasmania as Professor of History; in 1962 he was invited to be the first General Editor of the projected Australian Dictionary of Biography; and at the beginning of 1964 he moved permanently to Canberra, with the rank of a professor in the Research School of Social Sciences in the Australian National University.

Such was the unusual formal career of the quiet man whom Australian academic historians had come by the later 1950's to accept as one of the leaders of their profession, though 10 years earlier he was unknown to any of them except his teachers in Adelaide. Colleagues and students of his during that decade write of his directness and naturalness combined with a certain humility; his manner of teaching, when every lecture was a kind of yarn, interlarded with frequent colloquialisms, and nothing sounded routine, formal, or second-hand; his wise counsel to his formal superiors, especially in matters concerning students; his constant, unobtrusive, 'intelligently helpful' acts of kindness to colleagues in their minor or major times of trouble. They remember him for such things, and for much more that should some day be recorded. There have been others of whom something like this could be said; surprisingly, some may think, there are some good men (and women) in academic life. But not all good men; in this sense, are good scholars.

Douglas Pike had published little of scholarly interest when his Paradise of Dissent South Australia 1829-1857, appeared in 1957. It was at once seen to be a major book, which would inevitably be mentioned in any survey of Australian historical writing in its generation. Based on an intimate acquaintance with the original sources, it examined the formation and the execution of the plans for the foundation of a colony of free settlement; it aimed 'by being thoroughly provincial' to broaden the view of Australian history 'seen too often through eastern eyes'; and it refused to regard the British 'background' as being some­thing other, in that time, than part of Australian history itself. Pike's scholarly reputation was at once established. One can suppose that a critical review, after nearly 20 years, would endorse and add to the shrewd comments of Crowley's original notice in this journal (November 1957); but it would also repeat his general verdict, that Pike gave to Australian historiography 'a fascinating story of a unique experiment in British Colonization, which is at the same time a great achievement in historical analysis and documentation'.

Australia: The Quiet Continent (1962) was a text-book which wasted not a word, though there were judgments in it as well as information. It was a dis­tinguished addition to a genre in which distinction is rare, 'the best one volume history now available', wrote Fitzhardinge at the time, and many would think it still is. In a sense it may well have been a kind of exercise, written during a rest-pause after Paradise of Dissent, for Pike was practising the art of com­pression, while the conception of another major book—we may describe it as 'The mystery of the reputation of Edward Gibbon Wakefield'—was forming in his mind. But then events postponed its writing, though not for him its haunting presence, to the time of that retirement which never came.

Paradoxically, the noble, single-handed, biographical Dictionary of Percival Serle (1949), by showing what could and could not be done by one devoted student, made it certain that no such attempt would be made again. Many historians, including Pike, were concerned in the discussions leading to the project of a great national Dictionary which was finally given reality by Hancock's patient but relentless drive. By 1961 it was ready to be launched, though various thunderings and lightnings were playing around it. Much depended on the choice of a competent and resolute captain. The formal invitation to Pike came in 1962 from the Council of the Australian National University, but it reflected the agreed opinion of many historians within and without the University who had long been concerned in the project. For some time, by arrangement, his time was divided between Hobart and Canberra. He took up full-time duties as General Editor in January 1964.

In successive volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography Pike acknow­ledged by name or by category the large numbers of men and women, in Australia and elsewhere, whose continuing help as advisers, researchers and contributors had been foreseen as a necessary condition for its success. He, at the centre, the one man continuously aware of the state of communication throughout the whole network.

He came to the work as to a vocation. He knew that the decisive answer to sceptical critics of so ambitious an undertaking would be the publication, as soon as was consistent with the observance of strict scholarly standards, of the first volume of the work itself. He had told Hancock that this would appear in 1966, and with the co-operation of Melbourne University Press he kept his  word. To those who could read between the lines the first volume revealed his presence throughout, though in none of the five volumes which are his personal monument does his own name appear in the list of contributors.

He scrutinised every entry and rarely left one untouched. His passion was conciseness, without the sacrifice of humanity and style. Calling to see him in his office, one invariably found him with a script before him. Before he looked up he would neatly make one more correction in a date, one more deletion of a superfluous adjective, or one more insertion of a word to replace a clumsy phrase. To the present writer it was surprising to learn recently, on high authority, that as late as 1955 Pike had judged his own prose style to be too conventional and wordy, and had deliberately and quickly taught himself to write 'the hard spare stuff' which gives some sense of uniformity to the first five volumes of the Dictionary, despite the diversity of authors. Few contributors resented this treatment when they saw their revised scripts; it seems likely that many of them were surprised that they had written so well. Even those whose original words passed Pike's tests more or less unscathed were likely to find that a date or the spelling of a name had been changed, for he developed an acute sense for things seen before, and would notice a discrepancy even before he checked it against an entry read months earlier.

In his last decade he never relaxed. He made a short visit to New Zealand to secure further evidence in his long pursuit of Wakefield, and he had a sabbatical year in Cambridge in 1969-70, but these were working holidays. His visits to the state capitals were concerned with Dictionary matters, diplomatic or scholarly. He largely withdrew from general academic life, though he was always ready to give help or advice to colleagues or students who sought him out. Visitors to Canberra who had known him in earlier years sometimes remarked that he seemed to them gloomier, more sardonic, than the happy, anecdotal Douglas Pike they remembered. Perhaps there was something in this. His work brought him continuously into contact with human imperfection, and not simply that of undergraduates who knew no better. He had had remarkable success in securing willing co-operation from large numbers of people, but inevitably there were some instances of scamped work or failure to honour obligations voluntarily undertaken. In normal academic life these could, with a sigh, be reckoned as part of experience; in a project marching to a rigorous time-table they did not induce cheerful resignation in a fiercely dedicated man. Pike's immediate colleagues knew well enough that he did work too hard, but even those who had some formal right to admonish him realised that it was in vain. He would listen to them, and with his singularly sweet and affectionate smile, change the subject. As the volumes of the Dictionary followed one another, the world recognised that in relative quality it was equal or superior to the best examples of its kind. At home, Australian historians know that it has already significantly expanded the possibilities of study open to them in the period it has so far covered. Pike was due to retire on 31 December 1973. Volume 5 of the Dictionary was in galley­ proof, and arrangements had been made for him to continue his editorial work, with the status of a Visiting Fellow, until Volume 6 was ready for the press. When the blow fell, and his speech failed him, he was trying to convey a message about a personal scholarly obligation, and about a doctoral thesis which he had just finished examining.

A smallish, neat man, Douglas Pike was physically stronger than he appeared to be. By self-discipline in rigorously following the prescribed regimen, he had made a good recovery from a heart-attack in the 1950's. His hobby was the making of stone walls, and he built them to last. One knew that he did derive a sombre satisfaction from work well done, but praise to his face made him dourly uncomfortable. It required a stern letter from England, written at the request of those close to him, to persuade him that he should accept the Ernest Scott Prize, the first of the honours that recognised his work for the Dictionary, for he felt that he should not be distinguished from others in his small central team. He was also awarded the Britannica Australia Award in 1971 for out­standing services to Australian History.

He would have shuddered at the thought of a summing-up. He preferred facts to judgments. Yet he might have smiled in reluctant appreciation if he could have known the short verdict of the present editor of the British Dictionary of National Biography, for he recognised a professional when he met one. '... a rare spirit,' wrote Bill Williams, 'craggy and honest, straight out of Bunyan'.

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J. A. La Nauze, 'Pike, Douglas Henry (Doug) (1908–1974)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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