Jillian Isobel Roe AO was born in 1940 in Tumby Bay, SA, a small farming town where her father was a farmer and her mother a nurse. After finishing school at Adelaide Girls’ High School, she studied history at the University of Adelaide and then proceeded in 1963 to the ANU, where she wrote her MA under the supervision of Don Baker and Manning Clark. Her thesis, A decade of assessment: being a study in the intellectual life of the city of Melbourne between 1876 and 1886, was the basis of her first major book, Marvellous Melbourne: The Emergence of an Australian City (1974). In 1967, Roe became a founding member of staff at Macquarie University, where she taught British Australian and social policy history.
Roe also served on many committees, within the discipline and more widely. In 1984, she became a member of the Board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, of which she was President from 1996 through to 2006; she wrote 19 major entries and was Editor of the 2005 Supplement. In 1991, she was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences. She was also Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University in 1994-95, President of the Australian Historical Association (1999-2000, 2001-2002), President of the History Council of New South Wales (2007-2008), and Director of the Centre for the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2005-2010).
After 36 years of service at Macquarie University, having mentored and inspired generations of students, particularly in the areas of Australian history, women’s history and historical biography, Roe retired from teaching, where she was named Professor Emerita. In 2007 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, also the Australian Historical Association. In 2013, Macquarie University awarded her the Higher Degree of Doctor of Letters.
Among the works which established her as a leader in women’s history in Australia are Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (1986) and her definitive biography of Miles Franklin, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (2008), which won the Magarey Medal for Biography, the SA Premier’s Non-Fiction Prize, and the award for best Historical Book in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. She was also the author of Our Fathers Cleared the Bush. Remembering Eyre Peninsula (2016), re-visiting her mid-century childhood growing up on South Australia’s west coast.