Professor Ian Donaldson FBA FRSE FAHA

It is with deep regret that the Academy informs you of the passing of Professor Ian Donaldson FBA FRSE FAHA on 18 March 2020. One of the world’s finest Ben Jonson scholars, Ian was an international authority in the field of early modern English literary studies and a highly influential leader and advocate of the humanities in Australia. He was elected to the Academy in 1975 and served as Vice-President from 1980-2 and again from 2005-7. He was President of the Academy from 2007-9 and Immediate Past President from 2010-12.

Charles Ian Edward Donaldson was born in Melbourne on 6 May 1935. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar School; he completed his Bachelor of Arts (Honours 1 – English Language and Literature) at the University of Melbourne in 1957, teaching briefly in the English Department at Melbourne the following year. Ian completed a second Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1964.  During his time at Oxford, Ian was tutorial Fellow in English at Wadham College and Common University Fund Lecturer in English, before becoming the Chair of the Oxford English Faculty from 1968-9.

Ian returned to Australia in 1969 to take up a position as Professor of English at the Australian National University (ANU). In 1974 he was appointed Director of the ANU's newly established Humanities Research Centre (HRC). During his Directorship of the HRC, Ian helped to organise more than 80 international interdisciplinary conferences, working often in collaboration with the Australian National Gallery, the National Library of Australia, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and other institutions throughout Australasia. Under his leadership the HRC acquired a substantial international reputation and became the model for subsequent humanities centres overseas. He remained in this post until 1991, when he moved to the University of Edinburgh as Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature. In 1995 he was appointed Grace 1 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of King's College, becoming in 2001 the founding Director of Cambridge's new Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and the Humanities (CRASSH). In 2004 he returned to his old post at ANU as Director of the HRC, and in 2007 returned to the University of Melbourne as an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication. He also taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, Cornell University, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the University of Melbourne. 

Throughout his career, Ian produced a range of ground-breaking and comprehensive studies on the English playwright and poet Ben Jonson. His books include The World Upside-Down: Comedy From Jonson to Fielding (1970), Ben Jonson: Poems (1975), The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and its Transformations (1982), Ben Jonson (1985), Jonson’s Magic Houses: Essays in Interpretation (1997), and Ben Jonson: A Life (2011). He was a General Editor, with David Bevington and Martin Butler, of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, published as a print edition in seven volumes in 2012, and as an electronic edition in 2013. These two later studies of the life and writings of Jonson are the culmination of a lifetime of work. Ben Jonson: A Life has been widely praised as “exemplary” and “definitive” for its authoritative mastery of primary and secondary sources, and Ian was praised for his deep knowledge and understanding of Jonson. The Cambridge Editions of the Works of Ben Jonson includes over 500 contextual documents, 80 essays, several hundred images, details of stage performances, and a cross-linked bibliography of over 7000 items. A monumental feat in Jonson scholarship, it is also a testament to how the publication of print and online editions can lead the way in the combination of scholarly excellence and digital accessibility.

As a Fellow of the Academy, Ian led two major ARC Learned Academies Special Projects: ‘Promoting Scholarly Writing in the Public Sphere’ (2005), which aimed to encourage scholars in the humanities to acquire the skills to write accessibly for non-experts; and ‘The Humanities in Australian Life since 1968’ (2009), which resulted in a significant publication entitled Taking Stock: The Humanities in Australian Life since 1968 (2012). He chaired a number of colloquia held by the Academy including a highly successful symposium on ‘Philanthropy and the Humanities’ (2007), and the Colloquium of Australian Tertiary Language Teachers, ‘Beyond the Crisis: Revitalising Languages in Australian Universities’ (2009). In his voluntary position as President of the Academy, Ian set up the Lalomanu Library Fund – a fund to build a library in Lolomanu, Samoa after the 2009 tsunami. In addition to being a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Ian was a Fellow of The British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, elected to the two latter institutions in 1993. 

We extend our deepest sympathies to Ian’s wife Grazia, his children, and his friends and family here and around the globe. His passing will be felt deeply by the Fellowship and the broader humanities community, but his major commitment to advancing the humanities over some 60 years will not be forgotten.  

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”

— Ben Jonson, ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author William Shakespeare’, 1623