Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke with former Vice-Chancellor Peter Karmel.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke with former Vice-Chancellor Peter Karmel.

Avoiding history’s pitfalls

When Stephen Foster and Margaret Varghese started writing the history of ANU, they found it was a tougher task than first thought, as RICHARD FOX discovers.


It was a five year project. It meant reading thousands of files and millions of letters, memorandums and other papers. And yet, for Stephen Foster, writing the history of the first 50 years of ANU was a task he’d like to not repeat again.

To mark the half century of the life of ANU, Foster and fellow ANU staff member Margaret Varghese were commissioned to write the definitive history of the University. Indeed, The Making of The Australian National University, 1946-1996, can still be found around campus today.

But, at each stage of the process, the pair encountered challenges that made their task difficult. What to include? Who to talk to? Where to start?

Foster wrote about these problems in ANU Reporter on 28 February 1996.

“Writing about the recent past requires some sensitivity,” he wrote.

“It is hard to be wholly dispassionate about the characters in your story when you meet them in a tea-room or see them pedalling across the campus.”

Choosing what to include, and how much attention should be given to each anecdote, was particularly tough. This included an infamous episode involving a future Prime Minister.

“Several times we confronted discrepancies between the oral and written record,” he wrote.

“One of the least consequential but most diverting of these was whether PhD scholar Bob Hawke swam the length of the ornamental pond at University House late one night during a conference of Anglican bishops in 1957.

“Well established oral tradition…says that he did. The written record…has him leading the cheer squad for another, solitary swimmer.”

And while an updated version of the history of ANU is a possibility for the University’s 75th birthday, Foster had some sage words of advice for those who follow in his footsteps.

“Researching and writing the University’s history has been challenging, fulfilling and exhausting,” he wrote.

“Would I ever attempt a similar project in future years? As my wife bellowed while giving birth to our first child: ‘NEVER AGAIN!’”

You can download a free copy of Foster and Varghese’s book from ANU Press at