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Berndt, Catherine Helen (1918–1994)

by Sandy Toussaint

This article was published online in 2018

Catherine Helen Berndt (1918–1994), anthropologist, was born on 8 May 1918 in Auckland, New Zealand, eldest of four children of James McGregor Webb, engineer, and his wife Katie Smith, née Campbell, both New Zealand born of English, Irish, Scottish, and Maori descent. From an early age Catherine had keen observational skills and was curious about cultural life and human variation. She also developed an interest in literature, especially prose and poetry. A conscientious scholar at St Cuthbert’s College, Auckland (1931-33), and Hutt Valley High School, near Wellington (1934), she gained a bursary to study French and Latin at Victoria University College, University of New Zealand (BA, 1939). Anthropology was not formally offered at that time, although she was introduced to the discipline through coursework. She went on to study for a certificate of proficiency in anthropology (1939) at the University of Otago.

In 1940 Catherine enrolled to study anthropology at the University of Sydney (DipAnth, 1943; MA, 1949). Professor A. P. Elkin, then developing a reputation for his research on Aboriginal Australia and the territories of Papua and New Guinea, tutored her. Ronald Berndt was a fellow student; the couple married at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Adelaide, on 26 April 1941. She later said of the marriage: ‘Then I married Ron, or Ron married me, whichever way you like to put it’ (Berndt 1994).

The couple undertook field research at Ooldea, South Australia, after which they co-authored From Black to White in South Australia (1951), the first of many such collaborations. From 1947 to 1953 Catherine was a research fellow in the department of anthropology, University of Sydney. She and Ronald conducted fieldwork in Northern Australia throughout the 1940s, including with Gurindji women and men at Wave Hill in 1944. She completed her first book, Women’s Changing Ceremonies in Northern Australia (1950), which demonstrated her increasing interest in and growing understanding about the beliefs and practices of Aboriginal women, and their relationships with men. A period in the eastern highlands of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea followed in 1951–2, her research forming the basis of doctoral studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science (PhD, 1955). A grant from the British Council (1954–55) and a Winifred Cullis award (1954–55) from the International Federation of University Women enabled her to complete a thesis on ‘Mythology in the Eastern Central Highlands of New Guinea.’ In 1955 the University of Western Australia (UWA) appointed Ronald senior lecturer in anthropology. With practical, emotional, and intellectual support from Catherine, he established the centre (later department) of anthropology in 1956. While he was tenured, and was appointed professor in 1963, Catherine had only the occasional formal contract as a tutor, and more regularly held a position as honorary research fellow, a title she maintained until the end of her life. The disparity in financial and professional status between the two was partly due to university policies discouraging married women from academic careers.

Apart from Berndt’s earlier work on the highlands of Papua New Guinea, her research focus was on Australian Indigenous groups. Like her husband, she is internationally renowned for the longevity of her career, and for the breadth, depth, and range of her publications. As authors and editors, they published extensively together, especially about research with Indigenous groups in north-east and north-west Arnhem Land, Northern Territory; the Murray River and Ooldea regions of South Australia; and the Kimberley in Western Australia. Their seminal work, The World of the First Australians (1964), encompassed Aboriginal Australia as a whole, and was republished and revised several times.

Often working independently among Aboriginal women, Berndt recorded oral literature, and wrote articles and chapters describing and analysing the complementarity of gender roles in Aboriginal societies. An interest in children’s stories evolved in later years; she published Land of the Rainbow Snake (1979, with Djoki Yunupingu), which was awarded the New South Wales Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in 1980; When the World was New: In Rainbow Snake Country (1988, with Raymond Meeks); and Humans and Other Beings: Stories from Papua New Guinea (1989).

A founding member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1964, Berndt was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 1982. The next year UWA conferred on her an honorary doctorate of letters, and in 1987 she was appointed AM. Independently and with her husband, she received many grants for field research from AIAS and the Australian Research Grants Scheme.

Berndt was discerning and cautious about many things, including close friendships and sharing information. Rarely beguiled by superficial comments and encounters, she had a quiet and creative wit, and a love of nature, music, poetry, and prose. While often overshadowed in public life by her husband, she made a distinctive contribution to anthropology. Her subtle and expansively written works displayed a compassionate understanding of Aboriginal Australia, and the cultural complexities of the human condition in Australia and elsewhere.

After Ronald’s death in 1990, a loss that devastated her, Berndt completed A World That Was: The Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes, South Australia (1993), a major work the couple had started fifty years before. She died at Peppermint Grove, Perth, on 8 May 1994, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery alongside her husband. They had no children. A research foundation, named after them, was established from her bequest to UWA. The Anthropology Research Museum was set up by the Berndts in 1976 partly to house their Aboriginal, Melanesia, and South-East Asians collection; it was renamed the Berndt Museum in their honour in 1992.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Berndt, Catherine. Interview by Elery Hamilton-Smith, 29 April 1994. Sound recording. National Library of Australia
  • Berndt, Catherine. Women’s Changing Ceremonies in Northern Australia. Paris: Herman, 1950
  • Gray, Geoffrey. ‘He Has Not Followed the Usual Sequence: Ronald M. Berndt’s Secrets.’ Journal of Historical Biography 16 (Autumn 2014): 61–92
  • Kaldor, Susan. ‘Catherine Helen Webb Berndt (1918–).’ In Women Anthropologists, edited by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, and Ruth Weinberg, 8-16. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989
  • Marcus, Julie, ed. First in Their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1993
  • Stanton, John E. ‘Catherine Helen Berndt 1918–1994.’ Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 1 (1994): 93–96
  • Tonkinson, Robert, and Michael Howard, eds. Going It Alone?: Prospects for Aboriginal Autonomy: Essays in Honour of Ronald and Catherine Berndt. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990
  • Tonkinson, Bob, and Myrna Tonkinson. ‘Obituary.’ Anthropology News, June 1994, 2–6

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sandy Toussaint, 'Berndt, Catherine Helen (1918–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/berndt-catherine-helen-27506/text34905, published online 2018, accessed online 20 July 2018.

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