CANBERRA - Kenneth Stanley (Ken) Inglis AO died on Friday after a long and highly acclaimed career as historian and an academic career that traversed the corridors of Oxford University, his role as Vice-Chancellor in the early developmental days of the University of Papua New Guinea and for many years as Professor of History at the Australian National University.
Emeritus Professor Inglis was especially noted as the author of what has been termed “a magisterial two-volume chronicle of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (‘This is the ABC’ and ‘Whose ABC?’), his biography of war correspondent Charles Bean and Sacred Places, his study of war memorials.
Just back from Oxford in 1956, as a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, the then Dr Inglis wrote The Stuart Case, an examination of the conviction for murder and subsequent commutation of Aboriginal man Max Stuart.
From 1967 to 1975 Prof Inglis worked at UPNG, first as Professor of History then as Vice-Chancellor, a period captured in a recent article by Ian Maddox and Seumas Spark, ‘Taim Bilong Uni – Ken Inglis at the University of PNG’.
My own association with Ken was at its most intense in 2002-03 when he was working on the second volume of his ABC chronicle, Whose ABC?, a work I inadvertently delayed by – upon learning of the project - providing him with diaries I had kept during my second stint at the ABC between 1985 and 1988.
The diaries were so detailed that Ken felt impelled to revise his account of this period, writing to me in 2003, “To my immense relief the publishers are letting me deliver later than the contracted date of next March”, adding that “your diaries give the book a dimension it couldn’t otherwise have had”.
Later, when ‘Whose ABC?’ was published and a journalist colleague provided me with an advance copy, I wrote to Ken:
“I wanted to read enough of the book, not only the chapters covering my era but subsequent ones as well, to gain a clear and objective view of what you've achieved. And what you've achieved, beginning with the challenge posed by the title itself, is a very considerable piece of Australian history.
“When I provided my diaries to you, I did so with no sense of hubris but to make sure that - prickles and all - that slice of the organisation's history in which I participated was more fully disclosed. (Even though I now question my own role at times - not always coming up with better answers!)
“Though the book affords me the occasional personal discomfort, I'm very glad I found out about the project early enough to make the diaries available.
“I also now realise, more than I ever have, that the historian's role is a difficult one. Sorting through numerous conflicting memories and perceptions. Being denied information because of lack of records, death of combatants (ah, what stories Tony Ferguson could have told) or the wilful refusal to share or divulge. Not to mention dealing with selective or self-aggrandising recall.
“I really admire the way you have tramped and clambered and picked your way through all this to produce a work that is not only comprehensive and readable but so eminently fair minded.”
Ken was one of Australia’s great historians. He was a quiet man not given to pretentiousness or rhetorical excess; an astute observer and interpreter; and a conscientious and honest reporter of some critical periods and affairs in Australia’s history.
Ken’s wife, the noted writer and feminist, Amirah Inglis, predeceased him in 2015.