Obituary: John David Frodsham (5 January 1930 – 5 May 2016)

May 19, 2016

Professor John FrodshamProfessor John Frodsham was the inspirational Foundation Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Murdoch University and served as Foundation Dean of the School of Human Communication from 1973 to 1976. The following obituary was written by his son Stefan Frodsham and published in the West Australian.

John Frodsham was born on 5 Jan 1930 as the eldest child of John Keith Frodsham and Winifred Williams.  The family lived on the Wirral Peninsula which lies on the other side of the River Mersey from the city of Liverpool.

His mother Winifred came from a Welsh family whose ranks included the famous Welsh poet Robert Williams, usually known by his bardic name Trebor Mai.

His father John Keith was part of an old Cheshire family whose line included clock and watch makers William Frodsham and his son Charles. Frodsham chronometers were used on Charles Darwin’s first and second voyages of scientific discovery between 1826 and 1836; and a Frodsham clock was the first official time piece used by the Royal Observatory in Sydney.

John was proud of another forebear, Bridge Frodsham, who found fame in the city of York as a Shakespearean actor in the 1750s.

John was an extraordinarily bright child.  His mother’s youngest sister, his adored Auntie Cash, related that whenever she and Winifred wanted to discuss something in private they would switch to Welsh.  John, not to be thwarted, promptly taught himself Welsh.

He attended Wallasey Grammar School before going up to Cambridge where he attended Emmanuel College, founded in 1584.  His scholarships were generous enough for him to marry and have the first four of his five children while still a student.  He achieved the most extraordinary feat of setting a Cambridge University record of gaining first-class honours in all five of his subjects in the English and Oriental Languages Triposes.

Upon attaining his MA in 1956, he took up his first appointment as a lecturer in English at the University of Baghdad.  Nationalism across the Middle East had been stirred by the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the ascendant star of President Nasser of Egypt. The mood helped inspire a military coup in Iraq in 1958.  Fortunately, John and his young family, heeding the warning signs, fled the country just a few weeks before the young King Faisal II, his family and the Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, were murdered in the coup of 14 July.

John took up an appointment as a Research Fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra where he undertook his PhD in Classical Chinese, with his thesis on the poems of the Chinese nature poet Hsieh Ling-yün. Appointments at Sydney University and the University of Malaya followed, the latter being where he met his wife of 50 years Beng-Choo. Returning to Australia in 1965, John served two years at Adelaide University and then the ANU School of Oriental Studies from 1967 to 1971.

Between 1971 and 1973 John served as visiting professor at the University of Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania, before his appointment as Foundation Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Murdoch University.

His appointment is described by historian and fellow founder colleague Professor Geoffrey Bolton who wrote in 1985:

“The most eloquent of all the foundation professors, he was credited with understanding 17 languages and enjoyed a profound scholarly reputation in classical Chinese studies.”

Professor John FrodshamJohn was vitally interested in all aspects of China and his children grew up hearing everything about China around the dinner table.  He gave countless public talks and lectures on China; appeared regularly on ABC radio and TV; and advised Ministers and diplomats alike on China relations, particularly after the death of Mao Tse-Tung when China began to emerge as a world power and great trading nation.  He was included in the first WA trade delegation to China in 1974.

Professor Frodsham was a profoundly gifted educator.  His heart very much lay in teaching and engaging with students; and it was this great love that sustained him throughout his academic career over incredible 59 years until his retirement in 2015.

A former student at Murdoch University, Judy Banks, describes what he was like as educator:

“Each lecture was a lesson in geography, history and philosophy, in literature and mathematics, in the physical and social sciences, in past and present politics.  Enthralled students listened to Professor Frodsham’s recitations in Italian, Greek, French, German, Chinese and Welsh.  In Week 4, one young man announced he had no further use for the course texts: no book offered what he what he could gain from lectures.  Youngsters were content to sit on the floor, lining the walls and blocking the doorway … along with poetry, assorted dead poets came to life in the Murdoch classroom.”

Reinforcing Ms Banks’ experience, former colleague Professor Jenny de Reuck described him as an “extraordinarily inspirational teacher”.

In addition to the posts already mentioned, Professor Frodsham was a visiting professor at Cornell University in 1965; the University of Hawaii in 1968; American College of Greece in 1985; Tamkang University of Taiwan in 1985; the University of Singapore 1989; and Nanyang University 1990-92.

Professor Frodsham’s appointments include Foundation Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities; foundation member of the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters; and foundation member of the Australia-China Council.

He was awarded a Centenary Medal in 2001 for services for services to Australian society and the humanities in Asian studies.

His family is uplifted in the knowledge that he made a wonderful contribution to education in Australia and around the world.  He influenced the lives of many thousands of students who have gone on to help make the world a better place.  Over his career of almost 60 years, he did much to help Australia develop a better understanding of China and its history, culture, language and literature; and in this way contributed to the very strong trade and diplomatic ties that exist between Australia and China today.

Professor Frodsham is survived by his wife Beng Choo; brother Keith and sister Stella; children Simon, Stefan, Jonathan, Karen and Julia; eleven grandchildren and four great children.  A private family service was held for him at St George’s Cathedral on 13 May 2016.

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Media contact: Jo Manning
Tel: (08) 9360 2474  |  Mobile: 0408 201 309  |  Email: j.manning@murdoch.edu.au
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