Vale, Duncan Waterson

Emeritus Professor Duncan Bruce Waterson

Duncan was born in Matamata, New Zealand, on 14 April 1935. He graduated from Auckland University College in 1959 with an MA Honours (first class) and became a junior lecturer in history at the University of Auckland.

His career then internationalised. From 1961 to 1963 he completed his PhD at ANU where he was supervised by a number of people including the late Geoff Bolton who became a close friend. The book from the thesis, Squatter, Selector and Storekeeper, gained international attention and lead to his appointment as a Corporation Fellow at Harvard University in 1970.

Duncan was appointed professor of modern history at Macquarie in 1977. Here, among many other things, he supervised over fifty PhD and MA (Honours) candidates – some, like Bridget Griffen-Foley, who became professors –  as well as many honours students. He developed innovative subjects and courses, taught thousands of undergraduate students, mentored numerous colleagues and postgraduate, curated exhibitions, worked with school history teachers and wrote dozens of Australian Dictionary of Biography entries including Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s. It is rarely acknowledged, but Duncan, and Macquarie colleagues such as Max Kelly and Peter Spearritt, contributed significantly to the emergence of public history in Australia.

Egalitarianism in the workplace was central to Duncan’s values. He championed the establishment of a child care centre at Macquarie for all staff and presided, for some time, over Macquarie University’s Staff Club. He also developed international networks with various countries.

In 1988, after years of working with exchange students from China, Duncan became Visiting Professor of History at Beijing Foreign Studies University in China. He was there for six months with his wife Jan and his sons Robert, Fergus and Thomas and daughter Margaret. During this time he taught, researched and had the occasional meeting with people such as Gough Whitlam. (He ran as the Labor Candidate for the Victorian seat of Casey in the 1969 Federal election.) I was the lucky recipient of a couple of humorous and insightful post cards from Duncan from Beijing. (Many people received a post card from Duncan from somewhere – but no one ever received an email. Ever.) My first post card from China started off: ‘Dear Uncle Ashton’, as his children still call me, ‘Greetings from the new centre of world capitalism.’

From 1989 Duncan became a regular visitor to Turkey and was from time-to-time a guest of the Turkish government. Most recently he was involved in a number of projects on Turkey and Australia such as ‘Completing the Gallipoli Story: Researching Turkish Archives for a more Comprehensive History’ with other colleagues including Harvey Broadbent, broadcaster, historical documentary film and TV producer. This project was funded by the Australian Research Council.

Duncan was a wonderful character. I recorded an interview with him for his festschrift in 2001. ‘During the Vietman War’, he told me,

I was invited by some American and Australian servicemen to have a few drinks on a boat in Brisbane. But it got a bit heated. So I was thrown in the river. Swimming in the Brisbane River in those days was not particularly pleasant. I struck out for shore and the river bank was pretty steep and covered in mud. So I clambered up that to be accosted by a gigantic German Shepherd in a sort of compound. So I had to wind my way through a lot of mangroves and rocks before I could make my escape and go back to the pub covered in mud. That was a very salutary experience.

Duncan loved stories. He told our honours labour history cohort, which consisted of three people in 1983, a story about the corrupt Queensland politician Rus Hinze. It didn’t appear in his excellent Biographical Register of the Queensland Parliament 1981-1992 which was published by his small imprint, Casket Publications. (He delayed printing it until as many Queensland politicians as possible had been jailed after the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption.)

Hinze bought his brand-new wife a brand-new luxury car which the car salesman inadvertently delivered to his estranged ex-wife who refused to part with it. The obliging car dealer had even registered the car in her name. Duncan told us: ‘if it’s not true, it should be’.

Duncan died of an aneurism at his home in Beecroft, Sydney, on 26 June this year.

Paul Ashton