A strong voice in history and culture

Our School of Psychology with its former Brain Behaviour Research Institute was a powerhouse of new ideas and research in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Led by people including Foundation Professor George Singer, Margot Prior, Kim Ng, Meredith Wallace and Bob Montgomery, it helped change shiftwork rosters in many industries, lifted the lid on workplace stress, circadian rhythms and memory formation, and pioneered groundbreaking approaches to sexual and health psychological counselling.

Dale Trendall, Resident Fellow and a classical archaeologist recognised by countless international awards including a papal knighthood, was an early mentor to countless staff and students. He lived in Menzies College from 1969 until his death in 1995. La Trobe’s Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies and a Moat-side walking track are named after him.

Husband and wife Jean and Allan Martin  – whose names live on in one of our buildings – were foundation professors of sociology and history respectively. Jean’s work contributed to Australia’s first inquiry into poverty, which in 1973 introduced the ‘Henderson Poverty Line’, while Allan was a leading biographer of people including ‘Father of Federation’, Sir Henry Parkes, and Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies.

Historians, John Hirst, Marilyn Lake, Richard Broome, Alan Frost, John Salmond and many others set the pace both at home and abroad for the insights and quality of their research, the books they wrote and their inspirational teaching. Rhys Isaac won a Pulitzer Prize for History in 1983. He remains to this day the only Australian to do so.

He and colleagues including Inga Clendinnen and Greg Dening pioneered a distinctive La Trobe approach to interpreting and writing about societies and cultures of the past described as ‘ethnographic history’. They brought their subjects to life, rather than instilling facts and ‘chunks of specialist information’, which was pretty much the way many people taught history before that time. Their work continues today with historians including Clare Wright, Katie Holmes and David Day.

Those historians – along with leading political scientists Robert Manne, Dennis Altman, Judy Brett, Joseph Camilleri, and sociologists John Carroll, Peter Beilharz and Johann Arnason –contributed much to the wide sweep of public debate, policy and intellectual endeavour over the decades.

In the 1970s three of Australia’s most renowned philosophers – Jack Smart, Peter Singer and Frank Jackson – worked together at La Trobe, as did Brian Ellis, proponent of a new ‘essentialist’ philosophy of nature. Cold-war exiles such as Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér from Hungary and Claudio Veliz from Chile added new perspectives to teaching and scholarship.

Peter Singer was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Philosophy in 1975, the same year in which his famous book, Animal Liberation, was published.

Then there were our literary scholars, many of them also recognised writers, who challenged and inspired generations of students. They included Lucy Frost, her focus on women in colonial Australia documented in her book No Place for a Nervous Lady; Paul Salzman, specialist in early modern and Australian literature; John Wiltshire who fascinatingly combined medical and literary history in his critical studies of authors like Jane Austin and Samuel Johnson, writing a book on each; and foundation Professor of Australian Literature John Barnes who published several books on Joseph Furphy.

Much of this work helped us gain new and clearer understanding of Australia’s role in the world and our heritage, about Indigenous peoples, the role of women, environmental issues and sustainability.

The University also had close links with many journals including Quadrant, Arena, Thesis Eleven and supported public culture through the Australian Book Review, The Monthly, sponsorship of the Melbourne Writers Festival as well as literary and arts events, many in regional Victoria.

Over the years, La Trobe scholars – from the left, the centre and the right – have played a prominent role in national political and social debates. On three occasions they also filled the prestigious Harvard Chair of Australian Studies in the US.