Tag Archives: University of Queensland

Heather Radi (1929-2016)

The Australian historian Heather Radi died recently in Sydney. She taught Australian history at the University of New South Wales and University of Sydney for many years, and she was on the board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

I only met Heather a few times, but I knew of her from when I first began work in the History Department at the University of Queensland in 1970, for Heather had preceded me there during the 1950s, as a student and as a research assistant, and long after she left on a scholarship to the London School of Economics, people still talked about her fondly – and sometimes rather nervously.

photo of Heather Radi

Heather Radi, portrait in Dawson and Radi, Against the Odds

Heather was born on a settler block at Mt Tamborine in 1929. Now it is just an hour’s drive from Brisbane, but then the area was quite remote. She was the first of her family to get to university. Unlike most historians, she was good at mathematics, and might have done maths rather than history at university but for the flip of a coin.

After graduating, she went teaching briefly, and hated it. So did I. Then she worked as a research assistant for Professor Gordon Greenwood. So did I.

Those were the days of the God-Professor, whose power within his (with only one exception* always his) department was absolute. Professors like Greenwood kept a stable – I use the term advisedly – of female research assistants who prepared the raw materials for his work. (Greenwood was not the only one – I’ve always wanted to know more about the near-invisible research assistants who helped shape Manning Clark’s multi-volume history.)

In 1984, Heather wrote, ‘The professor exploited me of course as it was my work which enabled him to publish as much as he did, with a few words of acknowledgement in the final paragraph of the preface.’ When I joined the history department it was common knowledge that Heather had written most of the chapter on the 1920s that appeared under Greenwood’s name in Australia: A Social and Political History (1955). This was particularly unfair, not just academically but financially as well, because Australia was a text book that sold widely, went into a second edition, and no doubt earned Greenwood a good deal of money.

The upside of the arrangement was that Heather could write a thesis at the same time. She says:

To compensate for my low salary, I was permitted one day a week to work for a postgraduate degree. I was allowed to enrol for a topic so close to that which I was employed to research that the distinction of when I worked for the professor and when I worked for me was merely a notion in my mind.

I had a similar experience, though by the time I worked for Gordon Greenwood, his powers were waning. One of his earliest and most imaginative books was a study of Australian-American relations in the early 19th century. I was put to work gathering material for a second volume that would take the story of Australian-American relations through to 1901. I spent my time happily enough transcribing reports from American consuls in Sydney and Melbourne, chasing down the Americans at Eureka, and tracing the fascinating story of the Singer sewing machine. No book ever resulted from my labours, but many ideas that I have later played with came from those months of research. A few years after my job as research assistant ended, I snuck into the office one day and nicked all my notes from the filing cabinets. Nobody ever noticed.

One reason why Heather Radi stirred nervous memories at the University of Queensland was because, during her 5 years there, she was involved in a complicated sexual entanglement with two men within the department. In the 1950s she worked in a deeply sexist environment where women were barred from the Senior Common Room, employed in lowly positions on short-term contracts, and very vulnerable. Things had not changed a great deal by the time I arrived; I still clearly remember all of us women – secretaries, tutors and research assistants – reluctantly lining up to kiss the professor goodnight after an ANZAAS conference party in the early 1970s.

Heather was used, and abused, by her experience. She wrote about it openly in 1984, but since she did not mention the men concerned by name, I won’t either. Both are dead, but their children are not.

Many years later I realized that possession of my body had been a minor part of a bitter male relationship, between one man who was eminently successful and widely respected and another subordinate to him, less successful, less capable and resenting loss of patronage….

The men who had made me part of their rivalry each fathered a child in these years and I knew that whatever place I had in their lives it was secondary. I do not pretend that this was other than a bitter discovery but it supplied the incentive for me to complete a Ph.D. and to leave.

She got away. She won a travelling scholarship to the London School of Economics where, as ‘a quaint colonial hangover’, she was required to enrol in a second Ph.D.

I first encountered Heather Radi in the flesh in 1976. By then she had returned to Australia. She taught at the University of New South Wales, then moved to the University of Sydney. She and Peter Spearritt organized a conference on Jack Lang, the remarkable depression era New South Wales Premier. I had never been to a proper academic conference before and I loved every minute of it. I’ve been a bit of a conference junkie ever since.

Heather went on to organize more conferences, and write more books and chapters. She was a generous teacher and mentor. Reading her work again after so many years, I am saddened that I didn’t know her better. I’d like to tell her that things have changed at the University of Queensland – at least a little bit.

Update: Heather’s memory lives on in the Dr Heather Radi Scholarship ‘for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders who display outstanding potential’. Details here.

Heather Radi, ‘Thanks Mum’, in Madge Dawson and Heather Radi, Against the Odds: 15 professional women reflect on their lives and careers (Hale & Iremonger, 1984).
Gordon Greenwood, Early American-Australian relations: from the arrival of the Spaniards in America to the close of 1830 (1944)
Gordon Greenwood, ‘The 1920s’, in Gordon Greenwood (ed), Australia: A Social and Political History (1955)

*The only female professor at the University of Queensland in the 1950s was Professor Dorothy Hill in the Geology Department, but she was not immediately made Head of Department because the selection committee thought a woman would not have the requisite leadership abilities. One member of the selection committee was Gordon Greenwood.

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Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –

Continue reading

Fluidity and the Pitch Drop Experiment

It’s probably not the most important scientific research project to come out of Queensland, but it may well be the most famous.  In 2005 the University of Queensland Physics Department’s ‘pitch drop experiment’ won the Ig Nobel Prize.  According to the 2002 Guinness Book of Records, it is the oldest continuously running scientific experiment in the world.  It has its own YouTube site.

What is the difference between a solid and a liquid?  For most materials, the answer is simple – water is a liquid, ice is a solid – but for some materials, the answer is less straightforward.  Which category does glass fit into, for instance?  It is often thought that it flows very slowly, so that gravity gradually distorts the shape of stained glass windows so that they are discernibly thicker at the bottom.  This seems to be disputed: hand-blown medieval glass panels are distorted, but it may be that cathedral builders very sensibly placed the heaviest, thickest parts of the glass on the lower side of a panel as this would be the more stable arrangement.

In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell, the first professor of physics at the University of Queensland, set up a demonstration for his students of the way that something apparently solid, pitch, is capable of behaving like a liquid, though a very viscous liquid.  He heated a sample of pitch until it was liquid and poured it into a large glass funnel with a sealed stem.  He waited three years for it to cool and consolidate back to its solid state.  Then, in 1930, he cut the glass stem of the funnel and the pitch began very slowly to flow. Continue reading

Family Papers

The artist Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) had 3 sons, Jack, (1900-1990), Raymond (1903-1960) and Philip (1906-1958).  They were brought up in Brisbane by their mother, and went to the Brisbane Grammar School.  During 1920 and 1921, 14-year-old Philip produced a series of handmade, handwritten, illustrated magazines, which he called Artistic Temperament.

Philip Lindsay, Artistic Temperament
I’m not usually involved in what you might call the ‘front end’ of the historical process, the acquisition of the original manuscripts and documents on which our work as historians depends.  But last week I handed over a collection of Philip Lindsay’s manuscripts, the 5 volumes of Artistic Temperament, plus two other items, a school exercise book with his early stories and poems, and a 20 page hand bound play script, ‘Pierette: A Tragedy in 3 Acts’, illustrated by his brother Raymond.

These documents came into my family through my great aunt Emmie, and make me sad to think that I never really knew her.  She was my grandfather’s older sister, a tall, thin woman.  Her nose was partly burned away by radium as a result of the reckless treatment of doctors who used it to treat anything and everything during the 1920s.

As a child, I found her rather scary, but when she died, she left me her jewellery collection, a mixture of treasures and tourist souvenirs that don’t make much sense without the stories that should go with them.  Amongst the collection is a gold brooch, or badge, engraved AJA.  She received this to mark 50 years membership of the Australian Journalists Association.  She was clearly quite a woman.

Emma Powell was the first woman journalist in Brisbane.  She began work for the Brisbane Telegraph in 1907, where she met Firmin McKinnon, later editor of the Brisbane Courier.  They married in 1912 and became leading lights in the Brisbane literary world.  Somewhere in this cultural scene, Emmie must have befriended Philip Lindsay, who entrusted her with this collection of his work.  She had no children of her own, and Philip was a troubled boy.  His parents had long lived apart and in January 1920, Norman divorced his reluctant wife to marry his long time mistress, and artist’s model, Rose Soady.

Emmie McKinnon

Firmin McKinnon died in 1954 and Emmie in 1965.  At some point, she gave Philip Lindsay’s papers to my uncle Tony Powell.  He taught German at the University of Queensland, and when he and my aunt died, my cousins gave some of his books to the Languages School.  An eagle-eyed staff member there found these papers in a shoebox.

Tony offered the papers to various libraries and galleries during the 1990s, but no one was interested in ‘juvenilia’.  They are now.  The State Library of Queensland already has a Lindsay collection, so they will fit in well.

Pirate by Philip Lindsay

It is striking how much these youthful efforts reflect Philip’s later career as an historical novelist.  His first novel was about the pirate Henry Morgan, and the pirates are already here, as are Tudor kings and queens, and ideas of medieval chivalry and honour.  Norman’s influence is there in his interest in Norse mythology and Nietzsche, as well as in his misogyny (forgivable in a 14-year old boy, less so in the father).

Philip Lindsay Gods are not dead

I’m glad these stories and poems have been rediscovered.  I hope they reach a wider audience through the State Library of Queensland.  As always, the library has too much to do, and too little to do it with, but they hope to have the collection catalogued and available later next year.