Woman Jacobs, Marjorie (1915 - 2013)


Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
12 July 2013

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Marjorie Jacobs was a leader in the history profession who made a significant contribution to Indian and South East Asian History. Jacobs also made a key contribution to the establishment of the archives in Australia.

Marjorie Jacobs was born in 1915 in the suburb of Gordon on Sydney's Upper North Shore, then rural bushland. She was the eldest of four children born to Albert Sydney Jacobs and Sarah Grace Jacobs (née Aggs). Her brother, Sir Kenneth Jacobs, was appointed a Justice of the High Court of Australia in 1974. Her sister Shirley, a physiotherapist, married a New Guinea planter Arthur Barnett. Her youngest brother, Arthur Jacobs, was a vet and later grazier in the Wallendbeen district in southern New South Wales. All four studied at the University of Sydney, receiving University Medals in the 1940s.

Jacobs attended the Ravenswood School, then a private school run by Mabel Fidler. When Fidler sold the school to the Methodist Church in 1924 she recommended Jacobs transfer to Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School because of her academic abilities. Jacobs completed her education at the University of Sydney where, she was awarded the George Arnold Wood Memorial Prize I for first year British History in 1934. During her undergraduate career, she had also studied under anthropologist Camilla Wedgwood, Principal of Women's College where she lived as an undergraduate. Graduating with Honours in 1936, Jacobs was one of six students who were awarded the prestigious University Medal in her graduating year. She received her MA with the University Medal in 1941 for her thesis concerning the effects of German colonialism in the Pacific. This was the beginning of an abiding interest in the history of the Pacific and the processes of colonialism and its aftermath.

Marjorie Jacobs spent almost her entire professional life as a member of the Department of History at the University of Sydney, except a year spent working with the Historical Section of the United States Army in Australia, when she became part of the entourage of General Macarthur; her career spanned four decades. After completing her MA, Jacobs served as an Assistant Lecturer from 1938 to 1943 and was awarded a tenured lectureship in 1945. This lectureship was intended to be in the area of social history. Jacobs went to London on a sabbatical in August 1946. During this time, she took courses in the area of sociology at the University of London, including one taught by Karl Mannheim, and also came into contact with British traditions of imperial history and the intellectual and political world that developed in London during the period of postwar decolonisation. The 1947 blockbuster India Exhibition and the political debates sponsored by the White Paper on the transfer of power in India occurred during her eighteen-month stay.

Following her return to Sydney, Jacobs began developing Asian history in the Department; work which would continue throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1953 Jacobs fought the disbanding of the Oriental Studies Program and its transfer to Canberra. Long before the twenty-first century came to be regarded as the Asian Century, Jacobs argued for the importance of Asia. Writing in Australian Quarterly in 1953, she emphasized that 'Australia must be ready to meet the emerging nations of Asia' (Australian Quarterly, 1953). Jacobs was promoted to Associate Professor in 1967. She was promoted to Professor and appointed to the Department of History's third Chair in History in 1969. Jacobs was the University of Sydney's second woman professor, after Dame Leonie Kramer who was appointed a Professor in 1968, and the first female Professor of History, a position she held until her retirement in 1980. Jacobs is regarded as having had a profound impact on a generation of students. Her students recalled her as a dedicated and memorable teacher in a wide range of subjects, whose work in the area of Asian history was her greatest contribution. She also pioneered teaching in the area of historical method and historiography seminars for graduate students. Many of Jacobs' students, including Jim Masselos, Christine Dobbin, Richard Gordon, Richard Cashman and Antonia Finnane have gone on to be leading scholars in Asian History.

Jacobs's early research focused on German New Guinea; however, after the war closure of the archives in East Germany led to a change in the focus of her research. By the 1940s Jacobs developed an interest in the study of the indigenous histories of the Asian and Pacific countries and peoples who had experienced European colonization. This was part of an increased interest in colonization due to the political changes that occurred in the wake of the Second World War. It was during a period of sabbatical leave in 1967 that Jacobs finally gained access to the archives of the pre-World War One German Colonial Office in Potsdam in East Germany. During her stay in East Germany, Jacobs also secured a major exchange of material with repositories in Australia. She also made a significant contribution to the building up of Australian archives, after undertaking a research project, surveying the state archives held at Sydney's Mitchell Library in the 1950s, the report of which promoted the detaching of archives from the State Library and the establishment of a separate archives authority. Her support for the establishment of the archives and for the proper preservation of records helped protect the records for future researchers.

Jacobs promoted the establishment of the South Asian Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand and became the Association's foundation president, and later an honorary life member. In 1988, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1988 for service to education, particularly in the field of Indian history. Jacobs devoted her post retirement years from 1984 to 1997 to assisting the Royal Australian Historical Society and was awarded a Fellowship in 1990 for her contribution as a Councillor and Honorary Archivist and for advancing the knowledge of Australian history.

Jacobs passed away on 12 July 2013 aged ninety eight.

Additional sources: Personal communication with Pam Spies and Jim Masselos, August 2013.

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • Masselos, Jim and Pesman, Roslyn Cooper, 'Marjorie Jacobs', in Caine Barbara; Fletcher, Brian; Miller, Meg; Pesman, Ros; and Schreuder, Deryck (eds), History at Sydney, 1891 - 1991: Centenary Reflections, Highland Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1992, pp. 63 - 68. Details

Journal Articles

  • Jacobs, Marjorie, 'Oriental Studies in the University of Sydney', Australian Quarterly, June 1953, pp. 82 - 90. Details

Online Resources

See also