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Eminent historian Hank Nelson dies in Canberra


Hank NelsonTHE HIGHLY-RESPECTED PACIFIC HISTORIAN Hank Nelson died in Canberra on Friday night after a long battle with cancer.

Professor Nelson lived in Papua New Guinea for seven years from 1966-73, teaching at the then newly-established University of Papua New Guinea.

This experience gave him a lifelong love of PNG and he developed a professional interest in that country and the Pacific, with his expertise being much called-upon and highly valued.

One of his particular research interests was the period of Japanese occupation in PNG. 

In this respect, he was of huge assistance to the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society when it was establishing a factual understanding of the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the prison ship Montevideo Maru – which resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 civilians and servicemen who had been imprisoned by the Japanese in Rabaul.

Hank also greatly assisted the Society as it moved through its establishment and acceptance by the Australian government - a process which is leading to the establishment of a permanent memorial in Canberra, to be unveiled on 1 July this year.

A couple of years ago, Hank wrote: “Since living in Papua New Guinea for seven years I have had a consistent interest in the history and current politics of Papua New Guinea and in Australia-Papua New Guinea relations.”

Hank was the author of many books, his contribution to Australia’s relationships with PNG was immeasurable and his work to ensure a better understanding of Australia’s role in certain aspects of World War II in the Pacific and beyond was a of great importance.

He was a good man and he will be missed.

Hank Nelson, BA, MEd (Melb), PhD (UPNG). Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow, School of Culture, History & Language; Chairman, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project; Adviser, Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Society


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Mike Cookson

The Pacific Institute at the Australian National University is delighted to announce the creation of the Hank Nelson Memorial Endowment.

The Hank Nelson Memorial Endowment celebrates the pioneering and enduring contribution of Hank Nelson to the study of the history, politics and society of Papua New Guinea.

For more information is available at

Andre Stucki, Geneva

I was privileged to meet Hank Nelson in Port Moresby where he had come to attend the 50th Anniversary Celebrations commemorating the Coral Sea battle of 1942.

I was on a sabbatical leave from my teaching position in Geneva Switzerland.

For him I should have been nobody, for he knew everybody in Port Moresby, up to the Governor General of the time, whose novel "The Crocodile" I wanted to translate into French and to whom he introduced me.

He also gave me the background I needed to understand and appreciate the various aspects and moments of the celebration ceremony, making me aware of some of the great moments of Australian military history, to which he has devoted several books.

On my visits to the ANU he always devoted some time of his heavy work schedule to me, during which I received a glimpse of his life as a young Australian boy raised in the country and going to school on horseback.

All I have ever been able to do for him to try and match very modestly some of his kindness was to take him around Geneva when he visited my hometown with his wife on a visit to gather material for his wonderful book "Chased by the Sun".

He came to represent for me some of the qualities I liked and respected most about the people of Australia: kindness, generosity, simplicity and modesty, not affected at all by his immense knowledge and his reputation as one of the best specialists in his field of knowledge.

Frazer Harry

Hank Nelson was a wonderful source of knowledge on all things PNG, and was a great support for anyone with an interest, particularly in my case with the wartime history. My father and he worked on various things together, and dad held him very high regard, professionally and personally.

Gai Higginson

Hank Nelson was a wonderful man and good friend of my father, JG Tom Morris, who passed away in 2003.

Dad was a POW struggling to come to terms with his past. Based on Hank's advice ,he travelled back to Thailand and located the Hell Fire Pass cutting.

This trip resulting in helping my father to heal, and the establishment of the Hell Fire Pass Memorial.

Thanks Hank,you helped give us our Father back.

Eric Johns

Hank's contribution to our understanding of PNG history is immense and at the UPNG, in its early years, there was no better teacher. He leaves a body of work that will long continue as his legacy and, on a personal level, he was a mentor of great sympathy and wisdom. He is sadly missed.

Jonathan Ritchie

Hank was a great figure in both PNG's and Australia's shared history and his passing will lessen us all. A great intellect as well as a friendly colleague who was always happy to help out. We will miss him.

Ire Olewale

Thank you Hank for being a part of PNG and for helping to influence me to learn more about my country's history.

Anne Griffin

How many books about PNG have benefited from Hank Nelson’s expertise and encouragement? How many times do you see his name listed in Acknowledgements or Dedications? Many writers will miss his generous assistance.

In December 2010, with no little trepidation, I contacted Professor Nelson to see if he would be interested in reading my mother’s reminiscence of New Guinea.

He asked for the manuscript, and returned it to me, four chapters at a time, decorated with his comments. He then proceeded with further advice and encouragement.

I was staggered by this generous gift of his time and attention to a complete stranger. That so little time remained to him saddens me deeply. Goodbye Professor Nelson, and thank you..

Lindsay F Bond

This and future generations will continue to benefit greatly from the efforts and corpus that emanated from Hank Nelson's engagement with place and people of Papua New Guinea.

Jo Chandler

Hank Nelson was an exceptionally generous and authoritative guide to this PNG new chum. Very grateful for his insights and encouragement. Jo Chandler, The Age.

Rod Miller

Hank Nelson's exceptional knowledge of PNG history will be missed by all.

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