Biographies celebrate champions of 20th century change

From organisers of ethnic clubs to gay activists and campaigners against violence to women, prominent Australians who gave a voice to the silenced and drove a new wave of activism have been immortalised in the latest Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) entries.

Based at The Australian National University and published by the ANU Press, the ADB has published 680 lives of significant and representative Australians who died between 1991 and 1995. Together the in-depth entries illuminate the changing nature of Australian society.

Director of the National Centre for Biography, Professor Melanie Nolan, said that while this volume still sits in the shadow of World War II, there are increasing numbers of non-white, non-male, non-privileged, and non-straight subjects.

“By the 1990s, Australian society had become a diverse mix of cultures from all over the world with an estimated five million people living in Australia who were born overseas, and that is reflected in these articles,” Professor Nolan said.

“The arts, for instance, are always well-represented and this volume includes writers Frank Hardy, Mary Durack and Nene Gare, actors Frank Thring and Leonard Teale, and arts patron Ian Potter.

“We are also beginning to see the effects of the steep rise in post-war immigration flow through to the ADB. Artist Joseph Stanislaw (Stan) Ostoja-Kotkowski was born in Golub, Poland. Eva Bacon, dress designer, political activist, and feminist, was born in Vienna and arrived in Australia in 1939, later becoming active in the Communist Party of Australia and the women’s movement.”

This volume of late 20th century ADB articles shows that more tertiary and university-educated Australians came from a varied cultural background and included increasing numbers of women. A large proportion, 47.5 per cent, of subjects in this volume was tertiary educated.

This volume includes the veterinary scientist Harold Caine, the neurologist Syd Sunderland, the librarian Leonard Jolley, the biomedical engineer, Vivian Richard Ebsary as well as philosophers such as Eugene Kamenka.

Another huge development evident in the new ADB articles is a lifting of silence on matters to do with sex, from same-sex relationships and diseases associated with sex, to sexual abuse and domestic violence.

“Sexual orientation is more often articulated than in earlier volumes,” Professor Nolan said.

“This includes Stuart Challender, ‘the first Australian celebrity to go public’ about his HIV/Aids condition in 1991 and Olive Zakharov, who disclosed publicly that she was a survivor of domestic violence in her second marriage at the Victorian launch of the Federal Government’s campaign to Stop Violence against Women.”

ADB Managing Editor Dr Malcolm Allbrook said this volume includes the Torres Strait Island community leader and land rights campaigner Eddie Mabo; an article on the First Nations human rights defender, poet, playwright, and artist Kevin Gilbert; black rights activist, poet, environmentalist, and educator Oodgeroo Noonuccal; and author poet, and community leader Daisy Gawoon Utemorrah.

“The extent to which authors have worked with family is a notable feature of these articles,” Dr Allbrook said.

“We are setting out to ensure that the ADB is a resource of national significance about and for all Australians, and that all Australians are able to recognise themselves in its pages.”

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