John Aloysius FitzHerbert (1892-1970)

In the 1920s Catholics were thin on the ground at Australian universities, and there were hardly any Catholics on the academic staff until the 1960s. This was not due to an institutional anti-Catholic bias but to the fact that young Catholic men from working-class backgrounds often looked to a secure career in the public service. Those whose families were rich enough to afford a university education tended to be studying medicine and law; they were not aiming for postgraduate work and academic careers. FitzHerbert was born in Tasmania and graduated from the University of Sydney from where he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. When the First World War broke out he enlisted, served with the artillery and the Royal Flying Corps and was awarded the Military Cross. After the war he took a first class degree at Cambridge, lectured in Greek at the University of Edinburgh and returned to Australia to succeed Professor Darnley Naylor in the chair of Classics at the University of Adelaide.

FitzHerbert was a small, self-effacing man with a tremulous voice who fought with great tenacity for causes he believed in, especially the maintenance of academic standards and the strict observance of university regulations. He published no major work during his 30-year tenure of the chair of Classics. This was not unusual at the time. University professors in the Arts area were expected to be erudite and widely-read but not to publish a lot. Indeed, to keep up a stream of books and articles was often dismissed as academic populism. Sixty years later, in a tougher university environment, Professor FitzHerbert may have been in trouble for not justifying his professorial salary. However, he was a quiet and cultured scholar of the old school, immensely learned, whom his students remembered with affection as a ‘character’. Among his students was the linguist and anthropologist Theodor Strehlow and in his papers in the Barr Smith Library there is a collection of material on Central Australian languages. He attended Sunday Mass in this cathedral.

< back