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John Hirst (historian)

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John Hirst
Portrait of John Hirst
Born (1942-07-09)9 July 1942
Adelaide, South Australia
Died 3 February 2016(2016-02-03) (aged 73)
Melbourne, Victoria
Awards Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1986)
Academic background
Alma mater University of Adelaide (BA, PhD)
Thesis title [University of Adelaide Adelaide and the Country, 1870–1914: A Study of their Social and Political Relationship]
Thesis year 1970
Academic work
Institutions La Trobe University
Main interests Australian history
Political history

John Bradley Hirst FASSA (9 July 1942 – 3 February 2016)[1][2] was an Australian historian and commentator. He has been described as an "historian, public intellectual, and active citizen".[3] Born in Adelaide, Hirst attended Unley High School and undertook his undergraduate and postgraduate study at the University of Adelaide. Abandoning an early desire to become a Methodist Minister, in 1968 he was appointed a lecturer at Melbourne's new La Trobe University, where he remained until the end of his career. His wife and fellow-student Christine accompanied him to Melbourne. They had two children, Catherine and David.[4] Hirst was subsequently head of department and Reader in History at La Trobe. He retired in 2006, and was an Emeritus Scholar at La Trobe until his death.[5][6] Hirst had a distinguished career "in teaching, supervision and research. He developed new subjects and methodologies to teach them. In addition to those concerning Australian history there was his pioneering subject designed to inform students about Australia's European cultural heritage."[7] This work was published as The Shortest History of Europe and has been translated into nine languages (Swedish, Greek, Chinese, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Korean). Hirst was seconded to the University of Melbourne to edit Historical Studies, Australia's leading historical journal, from 1977 to 1980.[7] In retirement, he travelled regularly to Sydney to instruct, without remuneration, groups of post-graduate students in thesis writing.[8]

Academic contribution[edit]

Hirst produced a large number of important articles, chapters and books on Australian history. His academic interests were wide-ranging, including social, cultural and political history. Hirst's goal was to elucidate the qualities and characteristics of Australian society and how they had developed. Jeremy Sammut has described him as "an elegant and outstanding stylist, as adept at clarifying complex issues by reducing them to their essentials as he was at crafting the pithy line that eliminated all doubt his interpretation was true and correct".[9] In his historical work, Hirst's colleague at La Trobe University, Alan Frost, has noted that Hirst "challenged orthodoxies and produced many new insights".[7] He wrote two seminal books on colonial New South Wales which Frank Bongiorno has described as displaying "a raw intellectual power":[10] Convict Society and its Enemies (1983) and The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy (1988) (both reprinted as Freedom on the Fatal Shore in 2008). Convict Society and its Enemies was particularly influential, arguing that rather than being a brutal slave society, early New South Wales was a place where rights and freedoms were well-established from the beginning. Hirst's study of Federation, The Sentimental Nation, was also a ground-breaking work, arguing that national sentiment was more important than economics in uniting the nation. Alan Frost has described Hirst's shorter analyses as notable: "Distance in Australia: Was It a Tyrant?" (1975), his response to Geoffrey Blainey's most famous concept, "deserves much more attention than it now receives";[7] his "Egalitarianism" (1986) challenges "received wisdom about colonial life".[7] Many of his best shorter pieces were collected in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History (2009). A major achievement of Hirst's was a project to index the Melbourne Argus newspaper (1860–1909).[7]

Public intellectual[edit]

Frank Bongiorno described Hirst as a "creative historian capable of engaging a wide audience, as well as a public intellectual who delighted, infuriated and provoked".[10] He contributed many influential opinion pieces and commentaries to leading Australian newspapers and journals. Jeremy Sammut has noted that Hirst was motivated by an independent mind and a distaste for unthinking conformity. He "defied simplistic categorisation as a partisan because his politics were idiosyncratic". Hirst described himself as an old-fashioned social democrat.[9] To read Hirst is not to encounter a reactionary but "to be delighted as he marshals facts, logic and evidence with unarguable skill and precision to establish the heterodox case, while conveying powerful insights into whatever historical experience or process is discussed". A common theme in the obituaries cited is that Hirst was fearlessly honest, whatever the subject. As Sammut has noted, he was inspired by a commitment to "the rigorous pursuit of historical truth that drove him to explore the deeper patterns and meanings of the past, and the contemporary implications, that others had missed or misled us about".[9]

Public appointments[edit]

Never an ivory tower academic, Hirst held a number of influential appointments during the course of his career. He was a member of the Prime Minister's Republic Advisory Committee, the chair of the Commonwealth Civics Education Group, a member of the Film Australia Board, a council member of the National Museum of Australia, and a member of the board of Old Parliament House in Canberra. He wrote the official history of Australia for new citizens and took a prominent part in the history summit convened by Prime Minister John Howard in 2006. Hirst advised the Victorian Government on the school history curriculum and was history adviser to the National Curriculum Authority. He was elected to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1986. A committed republican, Hirst was the Convenor of the Republican Movement in Victoria.[5][6]

Hirst died on 3 February 2016 at the age of 73.[2]



  1. ^ "Family Notices". The Advertiser (Adelaide). LXXXV, (26135). South Australia. 10 July 1942. p. 10. Retrieved 14 April 2016 – via National Library of Australia. 
  2. ^ a b "Death notice". Herald Sun. The Herald and Weekly Times Pty Ltd (News Corp). Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  3. ^ Markwell, Don; Gerson, Elliot F., (writer of preface.) (2013), 'Instincts to lead' : on leadership, peace, and education, Australia Connor Court Publishing, ISBN 978-1-922168-70-2 
  4. ^ Stuart Macintyre, Graeme Davison (16 Mar 2016). "Shunning awards, historian set his own true course". SMH. Retrieved 11 Apr 2016. 
  5. ^ a b Steger, Jason (6 February 2016). "Leading Australian historian and public intellectual John Hirst has died". The Age. Melbourne. Retrieved 6 February 2016. 
  6. ^ a b Buckingham-Jones, Sam (8 February 2016). "Public intellectual has last argument: John Hirst dies at 73". Australian. Retrieved 10 February 2016. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Frost, Alan (September 2010). "Challenging the Orthodoxies: a distinctive figure in our intellectual life". Australian Book Review (324): 15–16. 
  8. ^ Russell, Terry (16 February 2016). "Remembering JB Hirst, A Very Different Historian". New Matilda. Retrieved 1 March 2016. 
  9. ^ a b c Sammut, Jeremy (9 Feb 2016). "John Hirst: culture warrior shaped future through the past". Australian. Retrieved 10 Feb 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Bongiorno, Frank (18 February 2016). "John Hirst (1942–2016) Remembering a historian of fierce independence and unusual originality". The Monthly. Black Inc. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 

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