Son of former Headmaster JF Ward, Russel was a successful English student at Adelaide University, taking part in student politics and the life of university to such an extent that he failed in his bid for a Rhodes Scholarship, for which he was considered favourite.
Ward taught in the private and public education systems before moving on to a career in academia, though this was delayed by his association with politically left organisations and the political climate of the time. In 1957 he was appointed to a lectureship at the University of New England, where he would eventually take a chair and serve for eight years as Deputy Chancellor.
Ward was a champion of the teaching of Australian history in schools, and his work The Australian Legend has been a key text since its publication in 1958.
Russel Ward was one of Australia’s pre-eminent historians.