(Deceased), 2000-01-01

Professor WD Borrie passed away in the early hours of 1 January 2000, an auspicious date for anyone, but especially for a demographer. Borrie had a close and long association with the Academy. He was very active in the Social Science Research Council, the forerunner of the Academy of the Social Sciences and he was Executive Director of the Academy from 1979 to 1985. In this capacity, he represented Australia at many international social science conferences.

Born in New Zealand in 1913, Borrie took degrees from Otago and Cambridge Universities. He began teaching social history at Sydney University in 1941, but joined the Australian National University in 1948 at the dawning of that university. Indeed, his appointment in demography was the very first academic appointment in the social sciences made by the new university. It had been an early decision of the Interim Council of the ANU to create a research post in demography in the Research School of Social Sciences. Fitting into the framework of postwar reconstruction, the council of the new national university considered population to be a matter of great significance for Australia but it was the Council’s view from the outset that the position should also develop research on the demography of other populations in Australia’s region. The Department of Demography that Mick Borrie created still pursues these dual aims today.

Establishment of a little-known, university discipline for the first time in any Australian university would have been a daunting challenge for anyone. With a person of lesser stature, the field of demography in Australia may have dwindled to become the secondary activity of a few scattered people. It is a tribute to Mick Borrie’s skills that he was able both to obtain permission to seek additional staff in 1951 and formally to commence the Department of Demography in December 1952. A hallmark of his career was that he had a good eye for the best people and once appointed, he was able to instil in them a dedication to the cause. Also, Mick had the wisdom to recognise that, in a small academic discipline, once you get good people, you do your best to keep them. His first two appointees, Charles Price and Norma McArthur, spent all of their academic careers in the ANU. At the same time, Mick realised the potential for isolation and encouraged his staff to spend time overseas and to attend the important international conferences in the field.

In 1957, the ANU appointed WD Borrie to the first chair held in the name of demography anywhere in the world. By the end of the 1950s, the academic staff of the Department of Demography had risen to five with the addition of George Zubrzycki and Reg Appleyard and, by 1969, the end of Borrie’s term as Head of the Department of Demography, there were nine academic staff making this one of the largest academic programs in demography in the world. In his 20 years at the helm of the discipline of demography at ANU. Mick Borrie had transformed an idea of the Interim University Council into the reality of one of the leading centres for population research in the world.

From 1965 to 1969, Borrie chaired the United Nations Population Commission. For five years from 1968, Mick Borrie was Director of the ANU Research School of Social Sciences. Under Mick’s leadership, the School went through something of a golden era, substantially expanding the numbers of its academic staff. Borrie also recognised the importance of ensuring that the work continued through the next generation. His many students went on to prominent positions all over the world. Within the ANU, all three Heads of the Department of Demography over the past 30 years have been his students. This represents a remarkable continuity of the influence of one man. Borrie taught his students to think for themselves, to have confidence in their own ideas.

In Australia, Borrie is probably most remembered for his direction of the 1970-78 National Population Inquiry. On the international stage, in 1996, he was awarded the Laureate of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, the demography profession’s highest accolade.

Mick’s strength as a teacher and researcher was in the placement and interpretation of statistical material within its social context. Speaking personally, within one year, Borrie was able to convert my ignorance of demography to some knowledge, but more importantly, like many others, he instilled in me a powerful abiding interest and enthusiasm for the discipline that has continued throughout my life. This is my personal debt to Mick Borrie.

A final word about that name, Mick. Recently with Gavin Jones, I prepared a joint paper with Mick Borrie on the work of one of Borrie’s more illustrious students and closest friends, Dirk van de Kaa. The publishers of the volume were very keen to use the ‘American system’ of full first names of authors. Gavin and Peter were fine but what name, they said, should they use for WD Borrie. Should I say Wilfred? Could I say Mick, that nickname by which he was universally known? I remembered the pain and agony of students in our egalitarian Department who could not bring themselves to call him Mick and looked forward to the day when they would be able to do so with the ease of a Charles Price. I remembered all Mick’s publications, WD Borrie, was his academic name. Sorry, I said, you will have to use the initials, WD. But in our fond memories, this man will always be Mick.

Peter McDonald

Main Teaching, Research or Administrative Posts

  • Senior Lecturer, Social History and Economics, Board of social Studies, Sydney (1943 - 1947)
  • Fellow (1948 - 1956), Professor (1957 - 1968) and Head, Department of Demography, the Australian National University
  • Director, Research School of Social Sciences, the Australian National University (1968 - 1973)
  • Chairman, National Population Inquiry (1971 - 1978)
  • Executive Director, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1979 - 1985)

Fellowships, Honorary Memberships, Special Awards

  • British Council Dominion Scholar for New Zealand 1939 (Cambridge)
  • Companion of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) 1979
  • Honorary Life Member, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia 1985

Borrie, W D (1981) Implications of Australian Demographic Trends.

Santow, G, Borrie, W D and Ruzicka, L T (1988) Landmarks in Australian Population History.

Borrie, W D (1993) The European Peopling of Australasia, A Demographic History 1788 - 1988.