Biographers Share Herculean Task
By Richard North
The University of Sydney News, 29 October 2004
One of the world’s biggest research projects of the past decade has reached fruition with the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The 60-volume dictionary, published in September, contains 50,000 entries from 12,500 contributors, including around a dozen academic staff from the University of Sydney.
It is the first new edition of the dictionary for more than a century, and the Herculean task of writing and editing the entries has taken 12 years.
The University’s most prolific contributor is Associate Professor Sybil Jack, from the Department of History, with 16 new or revised biographies. An expert on 15th and 16th century history, her subjects include Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who fell foul of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn over his failure to secure a divorce for the king from Katherine of Aragon.
Professor Brian Fletcher, another honorary associate in the Department of History, has contributed 10 biographies, including a number of figures from Australia’s early colonial history. They include the NSW governors Ralph Darling and Charles FitzRoy, and the entomologist Alexander Macleay, who started the collection now housed in the University’s Macleay Museum. He also contributes a biography of George Arnold Wood, the first occupant of the University’s Challis chair of history.
Dr Matthew Glozier, an honorary associate in the Centre for Medieval Studies, has written nine entries, including the biographies of several Jacobite soldiers from the 18th century.
Professor Margaret Clunies Ross, director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, has written eight biographies, mostly of 18th century scholars and antiquarians including Edward Lye, an Anglo Saxon and Germanic scholar.
Dr Jim Masselos, honorary reader in history, has written five entries. They are all of Indians who were prominent in political and nationalist life in the late 19th and early 20th century. “What is significant about these entries is that the DNB, which always had a tight focus on the British Isles, has expanded to cover a wider horizon, so that it now includes personalities who were prominent in the Indian empire and who in fact opposed it,” he said.
Dr Elizabeth Bonner, who specialises in Scottish and French history, has contributed three biographies of soldiers who lived during the 15th and 16th centuries – Sir William Kircaldy and John and Robert Stewart.
Roy MacLeod, emeritus professor of history, has contributed an essay on Archibald Liversidge, the University's first dean of science, as well as articles on two 19th century scientists, Sir Thomas Holland and Sir Alexander Pedler.
Dr Ken Macnab, an honorary associate in history and president of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, has contributed three articles on clergymen of the 19th and early 20th century, including a new entry for William John Copeland, an authority on the Oxford Movement.
Margaret Harris, professor in English literature and director of the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, also has three entries – a biography of English novelist and poet George Meredith, and two 19th century Australian writers, Jessie Couvreur – better known as Tasma – and Caroline Louisa Waring Calvert, better known as Louisa Atkinson.
Professor Bruce Mansfield, from the Department of History, has contributed a revised entry for 19th century Australian politician Sir George Dibbs, while Paul Knobel, an honorary associate in the Department of Modern Greek, has written the biography of Celtic scholar Nora Chadwick.
Emeritus Professor Gerald Wilkes, from the Department of English, has written about the 19th century bush poet Charles Harpur.
Contributors may have to search long and hard to see the results of their labour, however. With a special “introductory price” of 6,500 pounds (around $16,000), copies of the dictionary will be in short supply. Even the Fisher Library is thinking of subscribing only to the online edition – which in itself runs to 100,000 pages.
* Other members of staff who may have contributed to the DNB are invited to contact the editor ().