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John Stanley Martin (1933–2010)

by Professor Michael Clyne

John Martin, who died on 17 January after a 17-months struggle with cancer, was the doyen of Scandinavian Studies in Australia. Although it is 14 years since he retired officially from the University of Melbourne, he continued to conduct research, publish, contribute to public discussions, and inspire many. His life and his academic involvement were intricately linked, being characterized by a preoccupation with people, cultures, and languages. He was known for gentleness, close networking, and a very good memory. He loved travel and languages, even using ones pf which he only had a smattering.

He was captivated by history – the history of his family and that of others’, of the parts of Victoria where they settled, of the countries whose languages he had acquired, and of the people and units that made up the University of Melbourne.

After matriculating from Scotch College, he embarked on an Arts degree, majoring in French, German, and History. In those days, students who like John wanted to become teachers could apply for a studentship, which was more lucrative than a Commonwealth Scholarship but had two major drawbacks – it limited choice of subjects and condemned males, who could not be released to get married, to three years’ hard labour, usually in country schools. With the same cheerfulness with which he much later faced his dreadful illness, John enrolled unofficially for Honours subjects in German, then considered not a teaching subject by the Education Department, sat for examinations privately and had them credited at a later stage towards an MA Preliminary. Similarly, he thoroughly enjoyed his years at Beechworth as they gave him the opportunity to explore the history of north-eastern Victoria, where his maternal family had lived. He enrolled for a postgraduate Bachelor of Education by correspondence which included preparing a history of education in the north-east, and wrote a centenary history of two churches, while also completing his MA Prelim.

It was also at this time that John made his acquaintance with Old Icelandic, something that he described as “the turning point” in his life. “The Old Norse class”, he commented, “was a revelation in culture; it was like a secret society – once in one was a member for life”. Part of the fascination was with Professor Augustin Lodewyckx, head of Germanic Languages at the University of Melbourne from 1916 to 1948 who after his retirement continued to enthuse generations of students for Icelandic Studies. I don’t recall exactly when I first met John but it was probably at the Lodewyckxs’ Mont Albert home, Huize Eikenbosch, the venue for Advanced Icelandic classes for 3 hours every second Saturday. The odd student like myself doing the subject for credit shared the classes with half a dozen much older people who had been faithfully attending then for as many as twenty years. During the break for which Mrs Lodewyckx had been baking for nearly a fortnight, there was often talk of a country high school teacher called John Martin who had gone to Iceland on scholarship and was working on an MA on Icelandic mythology.

Returning to Melbourne to teach at Balwyn High. John also tutored in German at the University of Melbourne and produced German for schools broadcasts. He subsequently wrote a PhD thesis on Icelandic literature for which he studied in Copenhagen in 1965 and 1966, thereby acquiring another North Germanic language. He spent 1968 doing post-doctoral research in Uppsala, giving him the language he would use most over the next 27 years of professional life, as Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer and since 1988 Associate Professor/ Reader in Swedish and Old Icelandic.

John’s academic field was as wide as his own interests and sympathies – literature, mythology, migration and educational history, language teaching, liturgy. He wrote and edited books, published articles, read conference papers. John was a dedicated, passionate and popular teacher. His contribution was valued internationally, reflected in his being made a Knight of the Royal Swedish Order of the Polar Star in 1988. Alongside a heavy teaching load he managed to complete a bachelor and master of theology part time.

An excellent raconteur, he was an enthusiastic member of the History of the University Unit. One of the tasks he had hoped to complete was a history of the languages departments at the University of Melbourne. The only published progress towards that were a very fine biography of Professor Lodewyckx and a history of the teaching of Old Icelandic at Melbourne. It would be good if John’s dream of a history of languages at Melbourne could be realized.

John presents Lodewyckx as a pioneer, a cultural interpreter, one who enabled students to use the language they are studying, an enthusiast about a multicultural Australia. This description applies equally well to John.

Recently John would often express his disgust with the new-look managerial university, furious about the abolition of Old Norse/Viking Studies, anxious about the future of Swedish, and yearning for the unspoiled academic world as he remembered it. Often he would say: “Aren’t we lucky to have been students at Melbourne University at the time when we were?”

John’s wife Helen died in October 2007. He is survived by sons Nigel and Robert, daughter-in-law Emma, grandchildren Sarah and Olivia, and brother Jim.