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Derek Percival Scales (1921–2004)

by James Grieve

Derek Percival Scales was born in England and came to Australia at the age of four. Having been an outstanding student of languages (first place in French in the state of New South Wales at the Leaving Certificate of 1937, an Exhibitioner at the University of Sydney in 1938, a medallist and prize-winner in 1942), he became in 1952 the first Professor of French and head of the Department of Modern Languages at the then Canberra University College. In the meantime, he had spent the years 1942–46 in the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve, completed a doctorate at the Sorbonne (1950) and lectured in French at the University of Birmingham for two years. From 1960, once the college had become the School of General Studies (later The Faculties) of The Australian National University, he continued in both positions. His department, over the years, was to incur a variety of different names, including ‘French & Russian’ and ‘Romance Languages’, indicative first of the University’s confident promotion of European languages, then of its dismaying ambivalence towards them.

Between 1965 and 1974, he acted also at different times as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, a professorial member of Council, Esquire Bedell and the Dean of Students. As a scholar, his best work was done in literary studies, especially on the 19th-century wit and satirist Alphonse Karr (the coiner of the quip ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’) and on the francophilia of Aldous Huxley. When he retired (early) in 1983, he had occupied his chair for 31 years, bar a few days. In 1984 he was appointed Emeritus Professor. Like some other members of the former Canberra University College, he served for years as a member of the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board. He was an active member of the Alliance française, being for long periods the President of the Canberra branch, before being elected to the position of foundation President of the Alliances françaises of Australia. His contribution to the dissemination of French culture was recognised in 1973 by his being appointed Officier in the Ordre des Palmes académiques, then promoted Commandeur on his retirement, the first Australian to be awarded this honour.

In 1950, Derek married Yvonne Hampson; they had three daughters.

Derek always signed himself as ‘D.P. Scales’, as though he felt he belonged to a time before ours, more private than ours, in which gentlemanly scholars and courteous cricketers declined to reveal more than their initials in public. This helped make something of the impression of reserve and formality that Derek could give to those who did not know him well. When one did know him, reserve and formality were foreign to him; in daily working together, one was struck by his temperate disposition, his good cheer, his patience, his considerateness, his occasional irreverence (‘Take the piss out of them’ was his description of a suggestion I once made about how we should greet freshers with a sudden onslaught of strenuous work and strange knowledge in their very first class of the year). He joyed in words and what writers can do with them, usually French writers; but he could also cap someone’s reference to Evelyn Waugh by reciting with relish whole chunks of Decline and Fall: ‘For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands …’.

As a head of department, he was a model of how to earn the respect of colleagues by transmuting headship into an exercise in getting on with people so as to bring out the best in them: he sought advice, he listened, he attended to competing options, before making a choice that all concerned usually accepted as reasonable and fair. In 20 years, I saw him testy only twice. He also let us choose to do what we thought we did best and to do it in our own ways. He was gentle and careful in advising younger colleagues in whom a suspicion of their infallibility could conceal from them their own ignorance or fatuity: I having quietly boasted to him of the fact that I had only ever been seasick once, he quietly replied that he had spent years on a destroyer and been seasick every day. Among ourselves, we called him ‘le patron’, an appellation that expressed the simplicity of our relations with him, made of respect, homeliness and amiable acceptance of his superiority and his willingness to do as much of the hard work as anyone else. There was never any notion that the head should have less teaching to do than the rest of us, that he should be a foreigner to first years, that he should teach only the best classes. Derek gave us the impression that, if he was first among equals, it was only by accident and that he knew the only authority worth having is the moral sort accorded by the affectionate esteem of colleagues. When asked, he had no hesitation in acting alongside students in productions of French plays and rolling about the floor when directed to; and among his performances, that as Monsieur Smith in Ionesco’s ‘La cantatrice chauve’ endeared him to an audience unaccustomed to seeing their Prof. behave in such ways.

To a junior colleague, grateful to him for the belief in my ability that had led him to appoint me to a Senior Tutorship, he was also a model of the professor, in the most literal sense, of a subject: from his early days at the Canberra University College, of necessity, single-handed, he had had to profess the whole of his subject, which in those days was defined as French language and literature. Though I never had to do that (by the late 1960s, there were seven of us in French), it was admiration of Derek’s easy proficiency in all branches of his discipline that eventually made of me the all-rounder, which, thanks to his example, I had spent years in trying to become.

Decency, open-mindedness, tolerance, equableness, enjoyment of the job in hand, these were what made Derek Scales a just man to work for, an unassuming man to learn from and an easy man to like.

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Citation details

James Grieve, 'Scales, Derek Percival (1921–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 July, 1921
London, Middlesex, England


2004 (aged ~ 82)

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