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Heather Joan Radi (1929–2016)

by Humphrey McQueen and Di MacKenzie

Heather Radi, 1980s

Heather Radi, 1980s

Before Gough Whitlam became the shining light for the Labor Party, there was Jack Lang, the only premier ever sacked by a governor. In 1964, pity the lecturer who questioned his defiance of the state's debt obligations during the Depression.

Historian Heather Radi did when she taught at the University of New South Wales in the 1960s. Students responded by hissing and booing and even walking out of the lecture theatre.

The next week when she gave her second of the series, sticking to her analysis of Lang, students applauded. Not because they necessarily agreed with her; but because she had the courage of her convictions. Meanwhile of her all-girl tutorial, she joked of "the convent" she was teaching.

Heather Radi, groundbreaking historian and mentor, was born at Tambourine Mountain, Queensland in 1929. In her contribution to a volume of essays Against the Odds, she thanked her father, Densel Curtis, a beekeeper. He had insisted on close observation of the natural world. Eucalyptus curtisii had been named for him. She thanked her mother, Florence, for encouraging her to pursue a profession beyond rural teaching.

Unusual for Queenslanders, let alone for girls from the country, Heather won a scholarship to a non-government boarding school, St Hilda's and then one to the University of Queensland. The flip of a coin took her away from mathematics and into history to graduate with honours in 1949. She was awarded a doctorate and a scholarship to the London School of Economics in 1955.

Caught up in the cultural and political excitements of a disintegrating empire, she married an Egyptian Moslem, Mark Radi, living uneasily in Cairo before they settled in Sydney in 1960, where they later separated.

After joining Sydney University in 1971, Radi introduced Australia's first tertiary-level course on Aboriginal history and on her recommendation, women, immigrants and Aborigines were included in the year 12 syllabus.

She was a foundation member of the editorial board of Refractory Girl in 1973, and a mainstay at Redress Press from 1983. Her aptitude for mathematics saw her keeping the accounts for several progressive causes.

Nothing exemplifies her contribution more than her editing the bicentennial-year volume, 200 Australian Women. Much of her scholarly work involved life stories, including those of Lang, and feminist, peace-activist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights, Jessie Street. Heather took a leading role in the Jessie Street Trust and its library.

Before the books, every morning started with a swim in the women's pool at Coogee before breakfast. Authors sought her strict editorial eye. She turned one professor's 800,000 opus into a publishable 180,000-word tome.

Heather's generosity to colleagues and friends alike was legendary. Such was her gift of time to other authors that some have commented that she left no time for her own work. She supported charities including those providing comfort to refugees.

She fulfilled her own wish to die in her Elizabeth Bay unit with its encompassing view towards the Heads. In 2001, the NSW History Council awarded Radi its annual citation "for her devotion to Australian history not only as a scholar, but also as an organiser of ideas and events and a supporter of younger scholars".

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Citation details

Humphrey McQueen and Di MacKenzie, 'Radi, Heather Joan (1929–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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