The University of Newcastle, Australia

Dr Bill Jonas AM

The University community is saddened to acknowledge the passing of proud alumnus and pioneer of Indigenous rights, Dr William Jonas AM.

Dr William Jonas BScHons, DipEd, PhD, AM
4/9/1941 – 25/5/2019

Dr William Jonas, the first Aboriginal Australian to be awarded a PhD and the nation’s second Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, died in Sydney on 25 May after living with the diagnosis, treatment and damage of lung cancer since 2014.

Dr Jonas, a proud Worimi man, is widely regarded as a pioneer of Indigenous rights.

Born in Sydney in 1941, Bill spent his childhood in the village of Allworth in Worimi Country north of Newcastle. His life was deeply influenced by his grandparents’ generation. His paternal grandfather, Billy, was a Worimi showman and decorated war veteran who performed at the coronation of King George V. Bill remembered his grandmother as a beautiful English rose whose philosophy was to be happy without making others unhappy, and without storing up unhappiness for the future. His great uncle, Dick Jonas, who never left Worimi Country, taught the young Bill to appreciate interconnections of people and Country, which gave him the foundations of thinking like the geographer he would become.

Dr Jonas’ list of impressive achievements includes contributions as an academic, activist and administrator.

Dr Bill Jonas Bill studied Geography at the University of Newcastle’s predecessor, Newcastle University College, graduating with honours in 1963 and completing a Diploma in Education the following year. He taught at Maitland Boys High School (1964-1967) and took postgraduate studies in Geography at the University of Newcastle. He took up a lectureship at the University of Papua New Guinea (1969-1973), where he earned his PhD, the first awarded to an Aboriginal person. He returned to Australia to teach at the University of Newcastle (1974-1991), establishing perhaps the first university geography course on Aboriginal Australia in the early 1980s.

Bill contributed to ground-breaking studies of Aboriginal needs in NSW. He led important innovations in Aboriginal studies at Newcastle and supported the influential Newcastle Awabakal Aboriginal Cooperative before his appointment as a Royal Commissioner on the Inquiry into the British Nuclear Tests in Australia (1984-85) – the Maralinga Inquiry led by Diamond Jim McClelland.

Bill subsequently led work in Aboriginal heritage protection, for which he was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal for services to protection and preservation of Aboriginal heritage and culture (1993). He was Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (1991-1996), Director of the National Museum of Australia (1996-1999) and Social Justice Commissioner and Acting Race Relations Commissioner (1999-2004). After his retirement due to ill health in 2004, Bill continued as a member of the University of Newcastle Council, Director of the NSW Aboriginal Health College and commentator on issues of human rights, social justice and Indigenous recognition.

Bill’s importance as a public intellectual was widely recognised by his peers and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Newcastle in 1998 and the Institute of Australian Geographers’ Professional Service Medal in 1999.

Bill leaves behind a rich and powerful legacy in writing and through his influence as a teacher, colleague and generous friend to many.

Messages of condolence can be sent to and will be passed to Dr Bill Jonas’ friends and family.

To celebrate the extraordinary life and achievements of Dr Bill Jonas, his friends and family have established the Dr Bill Jonas Memorial Indigenous Fund to support Indigenous students at the University of Newcastle. Donations can be made by going to and selecting ‘Dr Bill Jonas Memorial Indigenous Fund’ from the drop down menu, or by calling (02) 4921 8612

Images courtesy of UON Cultural Collections