14 April 1905 – 8 October 1998
John McCarty, who died on 8 October 1998, occupied a special place among Australian economic historians in that he bridged what has become a widening gap between the disciplines of economics and history. Firmly anchored by a rigorous grounding in economics, he displayed a rare breadth of scholarly interests. Disciplinary boundaries meant nothing to him as he raised questions and sought answers with a keen eye for detetail and a reverence for documentation. He was the quintessential social scientist.
He graduated with first-class honours in economics from the University of Melbourne in 1953 and tutored in the subject for about eighteen months. With the encouragement of John La Nauze, economic history became his special interest and he proceeded to Cambridge to pursue it. The thesis which resulted, on British investment in the world mining industry m the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is still referred to in new writing on the subject. He returned from Cambridge to a Lectureship at the University of New South Wales and then was snapped up by SJ Butlin to become a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney. In 1968 he was appointed as the inaugural Professor of Economic History at Monash University and continued in the Chair until his retirement in 1996.
'Seminal' is an over-used word which should be reserved for the work of the likes of John McCarty. He initiated a number of continuing lines of historical inquiry. He was the first economic historian seriously to examine the question of whether the staple model of economic growth could be applied to Australia, displaying a typical combination of originality and scholarly caution. He helped to widen the horizons of Australian historians generally by drawing attention. to Australia's place in the firmament of regions of recent white settlement. Possibly his most enduring memorial was the way in which he gave direction to the incipient awareness of the importance of urbanization in Australian history. In recognition of that, his contribution was celebrated, not long before his death, with a special session of a national conference on urbanisation.
John McCarty's leadership in the profession was evident in his being invited to be a co-editor of the 1888 volume of the Australian Bicentennial History Project to which he was also a substantial contributor. Long before that, he was, with Boris Schedvin, one of the founding editors of the Australian Economic History Review which continues to be the standard-bearer for research into Australian economic history. His occupancy of the Chair of Economic History at Monash was one of great achievement. He was a true scholar who set high standards for himself in all aspects of academic life. Long before the recent attempts to assess teaching performance in Australian Universities, he had established teaching as an important priority of his department. In this, he led by example and was greatly admired by his students for his scholarship and the rapport he developed with them. He played a prominent role in the University, guiding his department through good times and, more recently, not so good, and exerting a formative influence on the Faculty of Economic and Politics. He served on the University Council and was involved in many university-wide activities. He was a Fellow of Queen's College, University of Melbourne, and served on its Council for many years. He carried into his professional career the same qualities of integrity, decency and concern for others which were the hallmarks of his personal life.
JE Isaac and WA Sinclair