A model for a scholarly life

A model for a scholarly life

John David Legge AO (1921–2016)

Emeritus Professor John Legge died on 4 February after a long life and a distinguished career as a scholar, teacher and academic leader. He was a pioneer in the teaching of the history of Asian countries in Australian universities.

When he started teaching at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in the 1950s, the teaching and research in the history department, like that of all others in the country, centred on Britain and Europe. He broke the mould with a broad-ranging course on Asia. Later in life John said that no one would be silly enough to attempt such a broad course today, and that he struggled to keep one step ahead of his students in the early years.

Legge’s intellectual interest in Asia was influenced both by his wartime work in the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs and by the views of professors Max Crawford and William Macmahon Ball at the University of Melbourne, where he studied in the immediate postwar years.

Crawford and Ball both saw that with the end of the war and colonialism, Asia would be much more important to Australia and that it was essential for Australians’ to have a greater understanding of the region.

In 1960 John Legge was recruited from UWA to become the foundation professor of history at Monash University, then no more than an empty paddock on the southeast outskirts of Melbourne. For an ambitious and talented young historian this was a rare opportunity to shape the development of a new university.

In retrospect, it is remarkable how quickly he created one of the best departments of history in the country by attracting fine historians of Britain and Europe and extending the department’s remit to specialists on Australia, China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia. The continuing quality of the history discipline at Monash, its strengths on Asia and its ability to reinvigorate itself over the years, remains one of his enduring legacies.

The creation of the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash in 1964 was a Legge initiative. While at UWA he took a sabbatical year at Cornell University where he was deeply impressed by the Cornell Southeast Asia Project and particularly by its director, George Kahin, with whom he developed a strong friendship.

Rare opportunity

Given a rare opportunity to shape the development of a new university at a time of rapid growth and considerable government funding, Legge persuaded the vice-chancellor to fund a centre with an interdisciplinary focus on Southeast Asia. The timing was perfect: the Vietnam War had aroused greater government and community interest in Southeast Asia and as a rapidly expanding new university Monash wanted to do something different. And importantly, it had the financial resources to move into new areas.

By the late 1960s the Monash Centre of Southeast Asian Studies had attracted renowned scholars such as Herb Feith and Jamie Mackie (government), Milton Osborne and Ian Mabbett (history), Michael Swift (anthropology), Mal Logan (geography) and Cyril Skinner (language and literature), and dozens of doctoral students. Its structure reflected Legge’s belief in the importance of academic disciplines: it was a coordinating body focussed on postgraduate education and research. Its sole academic staff member was its research director. All other staff and students were located in disciplinary departments with conjoint attachments to the centre.

John Legge was a fine undergraduate teacher, remembered particularly by history honours students for his stimulating historiography course. He also had a real talent in knowing how to get the best out of postgraduate students. He loved an argument and relished students and colleagues engaging vigorously with him. One of the highlights of the weekly seminars of the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies was the sparring between John Legge, Jamie Mackie, and Herb Feith— and, later, David Chandler.

John’s broad interests and questioning mind enlivened the seminars by challenging speakers and participants. But he treated everyone with respect, taking their ideas seriously and engaging in constructive debate. He was particularly careful to support postgraduate students who spoke to the seminar, though always asking probing questions.

Never one to back away from an argument, John Legge was intellectually rigorous with a deep interest in methodological issues concerning the writing of history

John was immensely proud of the development of Monash University since he joined it in 1960. It was fitting that late last year the Southeast Asia study room in the Faculty of Arts was named the John Legge Study Space.

Never one to back away from an argument, John Legge was intellectually rigorous with a deep interest in methodological issues concerning the writing of history. This came through most clearly in his general history of Indonesia, a pioneering book published in 1964 and reprinted many times, and in his penetrating essays on the historiography of Southeast Asia.

As well as these works, there were books on colonial government in Papua and Fiji, a fine biography of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, and a study of the revolutionary independence leader and Indonesia’s first prime minister Sutan Sjahrir and his followers in the 1930s and 1940s. In retirement he wrote a history of the Victorian branch of the Institute of International Affairs, to which he was a long-standing member and contributor.


His legacy is to be seen not only at Monash but also in the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) to which he gave much time and thoughtful energy over many decades.

In 1973 he was a member of a small group that met under a tree at the top of Mount Ainslie in Canberra, during a break in an ANU conference, to discuss the creation of a new body to promote the study of Asia .In October 1976, he was elected the inaugural president of the ASAA and was a member of the executive for many years. In 2014, the ASAA appointed him an honorary life member in recognition of his enormous contribution to the ASAA and to the development of Asian studies in Australia.

John Legge will be sorely missed for his eloquence, his charm, his intellectual honesty and forthrightness and above all for his fundamental decency. For many who knew him as either a student or a colleague—and often as both—he was a model for a scholarly life.

John Legge at Borobudur, Java.

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