Historical sleuth closes the case on unfinished business
UOW’s oldest ever PhD graduate sets the political record straight.
James Prior wasn’t awake to hear the good news that close to eight years of hard work had paid off.
When the email came through that academic reviewers had passed his PhD thesis, James was in an induced coma, recovering from a car accident.
“I was by his bedside in the hospital waving the email I had printed out and telling him ‘you’ve got it!’,” his wife Jan recalled.
“It was very emotional for us because at the time we weren’t sure if he was going to survive. It was a very pleasant surprise for him to wake up to.”
At age 85 and with four children and 12 grandchildren, James, from Sylvania Waters in Southern Sydney, became UOW’s oldest ever person to graduate a PhD when he donned cap and gown at the April graduation celebrations.
James went to university after high school and went on to complete his Masters in American Studies.
“I remember sitting in a lecture theatre for my first ever lecture and I thought, ‘this is great. I’m going to get every degree I can’,” he recalled.
He started a PhD but didn’t finish at the time. Instead, he went on to work in the state education department until his late 50s and then with the Sydney Opera House, retiring from full time work at age 77.
Outside of his day job James wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines until the time was ripe to return to unfinished business: his PhD.
“I retired in 2007 and I didn’t like bowls or anything of that nature. I wanted to do something to further my interest in international relations,” he said.
Dr James Prior, a 'superb writer and dogged researcher' who is now UOW's oldest PhD graduate.
He enrolled at UOW in 2008 and would spend the next eight years – held back only by ill health and a car accident – putting his inquiring mind to setting the record straight on how the United States came to have a strategic military base in Australia.
James’ family speak of a man with a desire to find truth and justice and a man who goes to great lengths to get to the bottom of a historical event, particularly from a time period he lived through.
“What’s important is this country elevates the role of the then Prime Minister John Curtin and the adulation he receives is unjust.
"He gets the credit for wartime relationships with the United States he does not deserve.”
His thesis puts the efforts of Australian politician and diplomat Richard Casey front and centre in the efforts to convince the Americans that they needed Australia as a military base in the looming war against Japan.
“For my part, I believe that my thesis is a valuable work of revisionist history which will constitute a contribution to modern Australian history.
“It seems to me that the University took something of a risk in accepting my application to undertake the writing of a thesis back in 2008.
"I am extremely grateful for the opportunity that the University gave me and taking on a 78-year-old.”
His granddaughter Alexandra Northam is currently studying environmental science at UOW, continuing a tradition of higher education in the family.
His supervisor, Dr Stephen Brown, said James’ thesis was an excellent examination of Richard Casey’s crucial role.
“James was able to show that earlier appeals to an American sense of fraternity with Australia had proved fruitless,” Dr Brown said.
“Casey only made headway when he realised the need to argue in purely pragmatic terms that the United States needed Australia given Australia's strategic location, military achievements and economic resources.
“As befits his generation, James is a superb writer and a dogged researcher.”