How Jack Caldwell became a Demographer

Jack Caldwell in the 1950s

David Lucas suggested a series of reminiscences by Jack Caldwell about the early days of ANU Demography. So it is thanks to Jack, Colin Caldwell and David for the interview below and hopefully, what will be the first instalment of an adventure in demography.

When did you first hear of 'demography'?

I certainly knew of the term in the mid-1950s but was introduced to the existence of the discipline by Mick Borrie. At that time the New Education Fellowship (NEF) was an important forum for advancing education along liberal lines. These were the days before television and people took an active interest in community affairs. I was teaching in Canberra at Telopea Park High School and was secretary of the Canberra branch, with Mick as president. Mick was already Professor of Demography at the ANU. He was the first demographer I had ever met.

When did you take up the discipline?

Not for a while. I had done a part degree in science in the late forties in Sydney but had left and taken up teaching. Initially I taught in a primary school, at Nabiac, on the NSW north coast. I transferred to Telopea and secondary teaching in 1953 and then joined the NEF. In 1955, needing to earn more, I took up an arts degree as an external student of the University of New England (UNE), seeking some credit for my previous part degree. However, I did a full-time study load while teaching as well. In 1958, the family, now with four boys, moved to Armidale so that I could undertake Honours in history as a full-time internal student.

During the year, Mick commenced a recruiting circuit of Australian universities and specifically came to Armidale to stay with his old friend, Professor of History at UNE, Ted Tapp. Mick asked Tapp which students he should approach and Ted indicated me. In those days the Demography Department had no undergraduate program, all students were recruited at post-graduate level having undertaken other disciplines as a prerequisite for entry. So Mick sought my interest.

At the end of the year I applied for an ANU scholarship and returned to teaching at Telopea. After about two months I was offered the scholarship and the position became something of a battle between Mick and Noel Butlin who wanted me to work on the Australian Agricultural Company archived records that the ANU had, and still has. I spent an afternoon wading through a mountain of material, became depressed at the prospects of working on it, and opted to join the Demography program instead.

When you became a student who was in the department?

I joined students such as Yuan Tien (on Chinese demography), John McDonald (on Italian migration to Australia) and shortly later we were joined by Lloyd Robson (on convict boats) and Frank Jones was undertaking a sociology-demography PhD thesis. A departmental research assistant, Kathleen Jupp, had recently been awarded an MA for her work on population and became Demography’s first graduate. On the staff were Mick Borrie, Norma Macarthur, Charles Price, Reg Appleyard and George Zubrzycki.

What led you to doing your thesis on what was then called Malaya?

Mick Borrie wanted me to work on the 1903 Royal Commission into the declining birth rate in NSW. Eventually, Neville Hicks did this topic but I had begun working on it in 1959. However, it did not fully engage my interest.

At the time the United Nations Population Commission established regional offices, one of which represented Asia, the Pacific and Australia, under the newly appointed head, Halvor Gille. The office was part of the then Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE). In post-colonial times it was renamed ESCAP. Then, as now, it was situated in Bangkok. Gille undertook a familiarisation trip around his region and stopped off at the ANU in part to recruit demographers. At a staff seminar in the Old Drill Hall, he outlined the demographic challenge in Asia, and more generally, in the 'underdeveloped world', and the pressing need to establish links between Australia and Asia, particularly in the field of demography. He was passionate and convincing. However he thought it a shame that the ANU had no demographers to offer but expressed the hope that this situation would change. Borrie also said that it was disappointing that no link could then be established to this important region. I saw an opportunity and suggested that although only a doctoral student I might be prepared to work on the demography of Asia, so long as the ANU would support the proposal. Mick, while perhaps a little taken back at the suggestion, nevertheless saw some future advantage. He and I walked around the campus and discussed the pros and cons and what might be achieved and then we met with Gille.

ECAFE had been asked by the Thai Government to undertake a study of the demography of Thailand. It was Gille who proposed that I would work on this study as the topic for my PhD thesis. He suggested that I should take a position at ECAFE for a few months in preparation for the thesis.

During the late fifties it was becoming increasingly evident that the issue of demographic growth might prove to be the central problem of feeding the world and, in tandem, of achieving progress towards global economic development. The ANU took an active interest in this issue. Accordingly, I was immediately drawn to Gille’s suggestion.

So in September 1959 the family (but missing Peter who was doing his final year at secondary school) found ourselves on a Danish cargo ship docking on the Chao Phraya River and embarking on a completely new life in the 'Orient'. It was immediately apparent upon arrival in Bangkok that the future of the world would indeed lie with addressing the central demographic question of growth.

But neither Thai demographic statistics nor ECAFE itself were as established as we had understood. Nor were the prospects of either any more reliable. However Malaya, in the final days under colonial administration, was bringing out a well-run census under the auspices of the Malayan Statistical Office. One officer in particular was helpful, Fred Fisk, who was soon to join the staff of the ANU. So I suggested the change to undertaking a study of the population of Malaya instead of Thailand. In Bangkok I established ties with the Malayan Statistical Office and trawled ECAFE files relevant to Malaya.

After about four months we relocated to Kuala Lumpur where I was loosely connected with the Statistical Office. I undertook some preliminary analysis of the data, collected much literature from the colonial period and familiarised myself with the country. Afterwards we returned home to Canberra where I continued to work on my thesis in the Old Hospital building, opposite the present NCEPH, which was where the Demography Department was then located.

Other reflections by Jack Caldwell


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