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Obituary: Ann Trotter, first female pro vice-chancellor of Otago University

Alison Ann Trotter, ONZM: historian; bJanuary 23, 1932; dJuly 14, 2022

A pioneer of the study of British and New Zealand relations with Japan, Ann Trotter was a distinguished historian, a much-admired teacher, and the first woman pro vice-chancellor at the University of Otago.

She was born in Hāwera, third of four children of Clement and Pan Trotter – her older siblings Jetta and Ron, and younger sister, Judith. Her father by her was managing director of stock and station firm the Farmers’ Cooperative Organisation.

He taught Ann to ride at an early age. She and Ron would go riding together and had many adventures. Ron’s pet name for Ann was Bill. When Judith was born, her mother de ella said to Ron that she was sorry he did n’t have a little brother, to which Ron, aged 7, responded: “If ella she’s as good as Bill, ella she’ll do. ”

It was a happy childhood. Trotter attended Hāwera Main Primary School, and in 1945 she went to St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland for her secondary education. She did well academically, and in sporting and cultural pursuits. She was appointed head girl in 1949.

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She completed a master of arts with honors at Otago University in 1953, followed by a graduate teaching qualification at Auckland Training College. In 1955 she left for London, where she taught for two years before taking up a post reading for the International Wool Secretariat.

She returned to New Zealand to teach at Epsom Girls’ Grammar in 1959. She excelled as a teacher. Brian Edwards credits her with inspiring the young Helen Clark with a love of history.

Ann Trotter was the daughter of a stock and station agent and learned to ride from an early age.


Ann Trotter was the daughter of a stock and station agent and learned to ride from an early age.

Former pupil Diane Morcom remembers that she and her friends thought Trotter was “fabulous”: “We loved her style, her enthusiasm and energy, the huge interest she took in us all and her encouragement to us. She conveyed a huge love of history, extending our appreciation to include New Zealand, Japanese and Chinese history, at a time when most of us thought of history as the story of the kings and queens of England.”

That breadth of curiosity about the world led Trotter to take time out from teaching. She was aware of the growing importance of New Zealand’s connections with Asia as the country’s ties with the United Kingdom weakened. She decided to study Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, taking an MA with papers on China and Japan.

Her brilliant results led to an invitation from Professor Ian Nish to undertake a PhD under his supervision at the London School of Economics. He was a gifted and encouraging supervisor. The result was a PhD in international history, on British relations with China and Japan in the 1930s.

Angus Ross, professor of history at Otago, let Trotter know that the department needed an East Asian specialist. At the end of 1973, she joined the department, where she developed two new areas, East Asian and Russian history, and a very popular fourth-year seminar course, the Great Powers in Asia in the 20th Century. Just as she had entranced her high school students with her style and fierce intelligence, so she did her university students, a number of whom went on to have distinguished careers.

Ann Trotter was a keen skier, and traveled extensively.


Ann Trotter was a keen skier, and traveled extensively.

In Otago, she met and married a fellow academic, Stephen Mandel, who shared her sense of fun and adventure. They traveled extensively, had many skiing escapades and flew together in small planes over Central Otago with Trotter as co-pilot. Eventually Mandel’s decision to move to the United States made the marriage unsustainable and they divorced.

Trotter’s research flourished. Cambridge University Press published Britain and East Asia 1933-1937 in 1975. It was warmly received for its “superb” use of hitherto untapped sources and the light it threw on the development of British policy in East Asia.

In 1990 New Zealand and Japan, 1945-1952: the Occupation and the Peace Treaty was published. In 1991, the prestigious University Publications of America invited Trotter to become area editor of the Asian volumes in the series British Documents on Foreign Affairs, Confidential Reports and Papers, 1914-1939. This was editing and annotating on a huge scale: a remarkable achievement of great benefit to other scholars and students of international relations.

From 1993-97 Trotter was the first woman pro vice-chancellor at the University of Otago, and head of the Division of Humanities. This was a period of significant change for the university and hard decisions had to be made at a time of financial stringency.

Colleague Erik Olssen wrote: “With a combination of a bridge player’s concentration, and a thoroughbred’s capacity to race to the wire, Ann achieved a balanced budget. Under her leadership of ella, Māori Studies and Women’s Studies were placed on a secure foundation, vigorous links with the United States were created and a bachelor of education program for Malaysian students established. ”

In 1997 Trotter was named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to historical research.

She retired to Wellington in 1998 but remained a committed scholar and an active member of various groups concerned with Asian studies, was made a life member of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and became a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

Throughout her life, Trotter took pleasure and great interest in her extended family. In Wellington she joined the Talavera Tennis Club and the Victoria Bridge Club, and later the Kelburn Croquet Club. She was also an active supporter of classical music, attending performances at every opportunity. Together with her sister Judith, she attended seven Ring cycles and other Wagner operas in various parts of the world.

She was a role model to many young women who saw in her what they might become: leaders in their field, with a wonderful sense of style and fun, and a commitment to excellence.

With contributions from Erik Olssen and Katharine Greig.

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