Date of Passing: 05/06/2001
Professor John L Dillon seldom had the physical appearance of the quintessential scholar he was. I remember being rather taken aback when I first met him in 1965 (as an awed potential graduate student, who had read him but not previously seen him), this being in his striking crew-cut phase, which looked pretty strange atop his giant frame. Reflecting his willingness to accept change, towards the end of his life, after having lost much of his left ear to skin cancer, he wore his hair rather long (although mostly under a bush hat), a phase that I branded ‘fearless, peerless and earless’. To read his own account (told in his and Alan Powell’s 1998 obituary of Fred Gruen), his intellectualism (my word, not his) traced back to the inspirational professional environment he found himself in at the NSW Department of Agriculture in his first job as an economist. He was a rapid and eclectic book and magazine reader, much given to biography, especially of mathematicians and philosophers, Quadrant, The New Yorker, a broad cross-section of major newspapers, an astounding range of wine writing, and a dizzying array of economics journals.
Between good reads, John was an outstanding agricultural economist. He produced path-breaking advances in agricultural economics and farm management, reaching out to cross-disciplinary approaches from production theory, decision analysis, econometrics, operations research, systems analysis and organisation theory. It is not easy to do justice to his 200-odd written works in short space but, putting aside his half-dozen books that pop up on Amazon.com (under John L Dillon or Jock R Anderson), something of his range is indicated by his entertaining reviews of game theory (Dillon 1962), subjective expected utility theory (Dillon 1971) and systems theory (Dillon 1976), his critical work on his chosen profession (eg, Dillon and McFarlane 1967, Dillon 1988), his many pieces on agricultural research and technology (eg, Dillon 1987) and, last but not least, his enduring joint works for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (Dillon and Hardaker 1993, McConnell and Dillon 1997).
John’s first tertiary qualification was the degree of Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 1952 from the University of Sydney. He then worked as a dairy share farmer in the Berrigan district, before joining the NSW Department of Agriculture as a research officer, in a remarkable group that produced several Members of the Academy. In 1956 he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Iowa State University where he researched an award-winning PhD on game theory. Returning to Australia, he worked briefly for CSIRO and the Australian National University before taking up the position of senior lecturer and, later, reader in agricultural economics at the University of Adelaide. At 33, he was appointed to the University of New England (UNE) as Foundation Professor of Farm Management, and he spent the remainder of his academic career based in Armidale.
John took seriously the role of institutional leadership, serving at various times as Head of Department, faculty Dean, Chair of the Academic Board, and Pro Vice Chancellor at UNE. He was renowned for his administrative skill and incisive approach to tough problems, combining a robust self-confidence with an essential humility, and an earthy honesty with an unwavering sense of courtesy. His reputation for mischievous humour, especially when confronted with enlarged academic egos, was legendary.
John Dillon’s span of interests went well beyond his chosen profession. His willingness to stretch the borders of accepted wisdom was reflected in his efforts to secure accreditation and professional recognition for chiropractors. He served as a foundation member of the Australasian Council on Chiropractic Education from 1976 to 1988.
In the area of international development, John was prominent on the national as well as international scene. From 1985 until his retirement in 1994, he was a leading figure in the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. He also performed significant leadership roles in an unprecedented number of international agricultural research centres. To the extent that these roles involved managerial review, he was always respected but sometimes feared, his reputation for blunt reporting having gone before him. Part of that concern dates from his (1970 Minsk Conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, Opening Plenary Session) reverberating summation of the Soviet academician Rumyantsev’s major paper as being ‘…rather like an
English sausage – it contains very little meat and a lot of filling.’ Notwithstanding his direct manner, he was the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships, honorary doctorates and life memberships. In 1997, he was invested as an Officer in the Order of Australia for services to agricultural economics and international development economics.
John is survived by his wife Rita, their nine children, one foster daughter and 15 grandchildren. He leaves a large network of ex-students and a legion of friends around the world.
Dillon, JL (1962), ‘Applications of Game Theory in Agricultural Economics: Review and Requiem’, Aust. J. Agric. Econ. 6, 2: 20-35.
(1971), ‘An Expository Review of Bernoullian Decision Theory: Is Utility Futility?’, Rev. Mktg. Agric. Econ. 39, 1: 3-80.
(1976), ‘The Economics of Systems Research’, Agricultural Systems 1, 1: 5-22.
(1987), ‘Research and Technology versus Hunger: Problems and Prospects’, NZ Agric. Science 21: 6-11.
(1988), ‘A SWOT Appraisal of the Australian Profession of Agricultural Economics as at 1988’, Rev. Mktg. Agric. Econ. 56: 340- 346.
and JB Hardaker (1993), Farm Management Research for Small Farmer Development, FAO Farm Systems Management Series No 6, FAO, Rome.
and GC McFarlane (1967), An Australasian Bibliography of Agricultural Economics 1788-1960, NSW Govt Printer, Sydney.
and AA Powell (1998), ‘Obituary: Fred Henry George Gruen 1921-1997’, Aust. J. Agric. Resource Econ. 42, 2: 191-196.
McConnell, DJ and JL Dillon (1997), Farm Management for Asia: A Systems Approach, FAO Farm Systems Management Series No 13, FAO, Rome.