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Ian Frederick Wilson (1934–2011)

by James Jupp and Janet Wilson

Ian Wilson, 2002

Ian Wilson, 2002

photo supplied by Janet Wilson

Ian Frederick Harvey Wilson was one of the earliest academic political scientists in Australia, starting his career in 1957 at the University of Melbourne, the leading department in Australia in the 1950s. He was also a pioneer in Chinese political studies, based on a mastery of the language, at a time when the People’s Republic was not even recognised by the Australian government. His transfer to the Australian National University in 1961 began a long association, until his retirement in 1997.

Ian, the first child of Eric and Helena Wilson, was born in Darwin while his father was serving as the Melbourne Herald’s northern correspondent. The family returned to its Melbourne home in Hawthorn in 1935 and Ian was educated first at Preshil in Kew, and then at Trinity Grammar School from 1943 to 1952. At Trinity he was an outstanding student, was dux of his year in most years, and was captain of both the preparatory school and the senior school.

At Melbourne University his majors were political science and history and he completed his BA (Hons) in 1956. For the rest of his life he retained affection for Melbourne, based on his early involvement in Labor politics and his passionate support for the Hawthorn football team.

While still an undergraduate he became an activist in the exciting and sometimes violent politics of the inner city of Richmond and the federal electorate of Yarra. These were the years of the great Labor split. Richmond was at its centre, being represented federally before 1955 by Stan Keon and at the State level by Frank Scully, both defectors to what later became the Democratic Labor Party. That Ian was only twenty-four when he was chosen as organiser for the late Dr Jim Cairns, indicates the extent to which the very tough local Labor machine trusted him. Cairns won by a large margin and the DLP disappeared from the House of Representatives. Ian described the local scene in his monograph The 1958 Federal Election in Yarra. This was the first publication of the newly founded Australian Political Studies Association. It was unique among Australian electoral studies up to that time.

The triumph in Yarra led to him being an organiser in later elections for Kep Enderby and Susan Ryan. ‘Helpful, experienced and sane,’ was how former Senator Ryan described her campaign manager. He was also on friendly terms with a range of Labor leaders, including Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Jim Cairns, John Button, Barry Jones and Clyde Holding, who valued his experience in domestic affairs and his growing interest in China. His first visit there was in 1957 as part of a student delegation. He spent 1959 and 1960 at Columbia University in New York as a Senior International Affairs fellow (assisted by a Fulbright travel grant) learning Mandarin, gaining a Master in International Affairs and, incidentally, visiting Cuba and meeting Che Guevara in 1960.

He was appointed as a lecturer in political science at the ANU in 1961, with encouragement to extend his studies in Asian politics and international relations. He consolidated his knowledge with two years at the Chinese-language Nanyang University in Singapore between 1972 and 1974, missing the election of the Whitlam government in the process. Australia had recognised the People’s Republic and the Vietnam war was drawing to a close. Both developments made it easier to conduct critical and less contentious studies. These fields grew in size and significance. Between 1961 and 1996 he made over fifteen visits to China, three to North Korea and many others to Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. Apart from expanding his knowledge, he took these opportunities to develop as a highly proficient photographer.

Ian was head of the Contemporary China Centre at the ANU between 1978 and 1983. He published many articles on China and south-east Asia between 1963 and 1991, but a major funded research on the lands around the Mekong was abandoned on the death of his fellow researcher, Ted Chapman.

Like others in comparative political studies, he found increasing strains between acting as departmental head, a university council member and president of the union. In an unpublished note he remarked that "the whole academic industry was faced with a systemic funding crisis and spending my final years unable to teach effectively and scratching for resources did not appeal". Ian took early retirement in 1997. Six years later he suffered the first of several strokes, from which he finally died.

Ian Wilson was a very professional academic who never lived in the mythical ivory tower. Many of his former students found him a very supportive and encouraging teacher. He was politically active and committed, an all-round sportsman with an excellent cricketing record, both at school and for the ANU Cricket Club for 36 years, and a highly proficient photographer. When he wrote about politics it reflected a personal engagement and extensive travel, as well as traditional study. As his professor, Fin Crisp, wrote during his early career ‘Wilson is not afraid or incapable of a heavy work load.’ In 1967 Ian married Vivian Oliphant; their son, Michael was born in 1970, but they separated in 1974. His daughter, Petra, with Jennifer Jones, was born in 1983. Ian was predeceased by his younger brother Raymond, and is survived by Michael and Petra and his sister, Janet.

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Citation details

James Jupp and Janet Wilson, 'Wilson, Ian Frederick (1934–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Ian Wilson, 2002

Ian Wilson, 2002

photo supplied by Janet Wilson

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1934
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia


7 May, 2011 (aged 76)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism