July 9, 2021
Historian Dr Andre Brett wins 2021 Crawford Medal
UOW Honorary Fellow is ‘recasting what it means to be an academic historian in Australia’
The Medal is Australia’s most prestigious award for achievement and promise in the humanities, and it is awarded to an Australia-based early-career scholar for outstanding achievement.
Dr Brett, an Honorary Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, was described by his nominator Professor Sean Scalmer (University of Melbourne) as “among the best of his generation of historians working in and on the history of Australia and New Zealand at present”.
Professor Scalmer said Dr Brett was “recasting what it means to be an academic historian in Australia”.
Despite being legally blind, Dr Brett has carved out an impressive career since receiving his PhD in History at the University of Melbourne. The recipient of numerous prizes and grants, he has researched at every major state and national repository in Australasia, has been published through major university presses and high-ranked journals, as well as producing content for exhibitions and television.
Dr Brett said he was “absolutely stunned” on being told about his award.
“I have worked with fantastic, supportive people, and in this I have been extraordinarily lucky,” he said.
The Crawford Medal recognises Dr Brett’s prolific and ground-breaking work, which has seen him build a truly impressive research profile, contributing a valuable perspective on the intersections of history of transport, economic history, and environmental history.
As a self-confessed train buff, one of Dr Brett’s greatest passions is researching and documenting the effect of railways on the environment in Australia and New Zealand from the 1850s to World War I.
“Those railways defined our floodplains and altered the hydrology of our environment. Communities which had never experienced flooding were suddenly inundated after the railways were constructed,” Dr Brett said.
“Rail was also responsible for the destruction of vast forests and stimulated an industry of its own in Australia and New Zealand through a voracious appetite for timber to build these big railway networks.
“Even railways built during the boom in the 1880s that are now long closed, they are still shaping and defining our environment.”
Dr Brett is in the process of writing a book on this subject with the working title Scars in the Country: Railways in Australian and New Zealand Environments.
It emerged from the same research that inspired his soon-to-be-released book, Can’t Get There from Here: New Zealand Passenger Rail since 1920 (Otago University Press). This collaboration with mapmaker Sam van der Weerden documents the systematic cancellation of almost the entire passenger rail network across the Tasman, where now only two commuter rail networks operate, in Auckland and Wellington. The book concludes with a call to action to revitalise rail for a more sustainable and accessible future.
Dr Brett said he has a fascination for the “more colourful moments in history” with a particular interest in the history of failure and of unintended consequences.
Another research project traces the territorial separation movements in colonial Australasia – both the successful ones that created Victoria and Queensland, and the plethora of unsuccessful ones such as the Riverina, New England, North Queensland and Otago, which all sought (but failed to achieve) stand-alone status as colonies of their own.
“It’s important to remember all of Australia and New Zealand, other than Western Australia, were once a part of New South Wales. The discussions and debates that led to the creation of our state boundaries are a fascinating piece of our history,” Dr Brett said.
“Nothing was inevitable about the emergence of seven British colonies in Australasia and we could live in a trans-Tasman federation of ten states – or NSW might still have the entire east coast.”
Dr Brett was congratulated on receiving the Crawford Medal by Academy President Professor Lesley Head.
“André is a highly accomplished historian whose research extends across several fields within Australian and New Zealand history,” Professor Head said.
“He should be commended for the way in which he has brought our history to life, and to many new audiences, through his use of media. On behalf of the Fellows, I warmly congratulate André on his remarkable achievements to date.”