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Anna Rutherford (1932–2001)

by Joanne McCarthy

It's been 15 years since her death, but the last wishes of a Mayfield-born professor of literature once described by an admirer as “a combination of Muhammad Ali and a great white shark” will soon be granted.

Waratah’s Calvary Mater hospital, rather than the State of NSW, will receive Professor Anna Rutherford’s estate – now valued at $700,000 minus legal costs – and the money must be used for cancer research.

This follows a decision by NSW Supreme Court Acting Justice Peter Young on April 28 in a case he noted “had been a bit complicated”.

Professor Rutherford, a Newcastle University graduate and daughter of a Newcastle steelworker, died suddenly in her sleep on February 21, 2001, aged 68, with no known relatives.

She was widely mourned as a champion for Commonwealth nation writers in Europe. She headed the Commonwealth Literature Centre at the University of Aarhus in Denmark for 28 years until 1996. Poet Les Murray was a speaker at her Mayfield funeral.

Her will, written in February 1999, leaving a portion of her estate to a Sisters of Mercy nun and the bulk to “the Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Cancer Research Fund”, caused problems. But a bigger issue was Professor Rutherford’s court case against a former business partner which was still underway at the time of her death.

“The reason why it has taken so long for the estate to be finalised was that the deceased was involved in litigation which possibly would return her estate a large sum of money and it has taken time for that litigation to be resolved,” Acting Justice Young noted.

The case partially succeeded, but Professor Rutherford was not alive to see it.

She was a Newcastle girl through and through.

Although she lived and worked in Denmark for nearly three decades, she returned home many times, telling an interviewer in 1995 that “Newcastle is generous. I’ve always kept part of it.”

She came back for good some time after 1996 and moved into a flat overlooking Nobby’s Beach.

It was Dominican nuns in Newcastle who taught her literature, and Mercy nuns in Newcastle who helped her deal with distressing ailments in her retirement that led to depression.

In his judgment on April 28 Acting Justice Young determined it was “quite clear” where Professor Rutherford wanted her estate to go, but hospital name changes combined with name changes for the cancer research fund caused problems.

Justice Young found that Professor Rutherford’s desire for her estate to go to the “Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Cancer Research Fund”, made clear the money was to be held on trust by the hospital for cancer research.

The alternative was that the money would go to the State of NSW, he said.

Justice Young noted that Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton “took the view that she did not oppose the money going in the way in which I have held the will requires”.

Professor Anna Rutherford was revered in academic circles, particularly for championing writers from emerging Commonwealth nations and establishing Dangaroo Press to publish their works.

It was Canadian writer Gerry Turcotte who described her as a “combination of Muhammad Ali and a great white shark” for her sometimes fierce literary advocacy.

In 1995 Professor Rutherford affirmed her Catholic faith and love of Newcastle during an interview, saying: “God only knows when I’ll die. But I want my ashes thrown into the sea off Nobby’s Beach and a requiem Mass at Mayfield with Faith of Our Fathers as the dominant hymn. You see, I haven’t changed very much.”

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Joanne McCarthy, 'Rutherford, Anna (1932–2001)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 2 December 2023.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012