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Berndt, Ronald Murray (1916–1990)

by Robert Tonkinson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Ronald Murray Berndt (1916–1990), social anthropologist, was born on 14 July 1916 at Rose Park, Adelaide, only child of South Australian-born parents Alfred Henry Berndt, jeweller, and his wife Minna, née Schulze. Ronald attended Anglican primary schools and Pulteney Grammar School, and developed an early interest in ethnology and Aboriginal culture. At his father’s insistence, he began a course in accountancy. In 1938 he joined the Anthropological Society of South Australia and next year became an honorary assistant-ethnologist at the South Australian Museum, published his first ethnographic papers, and accompanied an expedition, mounted by the University of Adelaide’s board for anthropological research, to Ooldea in the western desert country. Encouraged by professors (Sir) John Cleland and Thomas Harvey Johnston, he studied anthropology under Adolphus Peter Elkin at the University of Sydney (Dip.Anth., 1943; BA, Research, 1951; MA Hons, 1954).  

On 26 April 1941 at St Paul’s Church of England, Adelaide, Berndt married New Zealand-born Catherine Helen Webb, a fellow anthropology student. The Berndts were to enjoy a very close professional partnership spanning five decades. They carried out fieldwork at Ooldea from July to November 1941 and published their findings in Oceania in 1942–45. Their book From Black to White in South Australia (1951) drew together their conclusions from work of 1942–44 in Adelaide, the Murray Bridge area and elsewhere in the State. In 1944–46 they investigated labour conditions on Vestey-owned cattle stations in the Northern Territory. Attached to the University of Sydney in 1946–51 and funded by the Australian National Research Council, they began studies of Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land that were to extend until 1979. In 1950 the Berndts were jointly awarded the Royal Society of New South Wales’s Edgeworth David medal. In 1951–53 Berndt undertook pioneering field-work, with his wife, in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. This research formed the basis for his doctoral thesis, submitted to the London School of Economics and Political Science (Ph.D., 1955), and his book Excess and Restraint (1962). In 1958 he was presented with the Wellcome medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Returning to Australia in 1956, Berndt took up a senior lectureship in anthropology in the department of psychology, University of Western Australia, and next year embarked on the first of a series of field-trips to the Balgo Mission, near Lake Gregory, that were to continue until 1981. He was promoted to reader in 1959 and to the foundation chair of anthropology in 1963, overseeing a rapidly growing department, especially in Aboriginal studies. Trained in a British structural-functionalist tradition, Berndt and his wife had eclectic interests and a holistic approach. Working among Aborigines whose first contacts with Europeans were relatively recent, and among those of mixed descent living under heavy acculturative pressures, they wrote extensively on social organisation, sexuality, social control, the life cycle, poetry and song, material culture, subsistence, religious life and socio-cultural change. Ronald made a major contribution to the study of Aboriginal religion through his two studies of Aboriginal cults, Kunapipi (1951) and Djanggawul (1952), and his monograph Australian Aboriginal Religion (1974). Consummate field-workers, with an eye for detail, the Berndts cared less for anthropological theorising and cross-cultural generalisation than for the ethnographic and representational tasks they set themselves.

Berndt founded the Anthropological Society of Western Australia (1958) and the scholarly journal Anthropological Forum (1963), and was a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1964. He was inaugural president (1962–64) of the Australian branch of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth. Concerned for the well-being of Aboriginal people, he was a prominent commentator and adviser, at both State and national levels, who took a keen interest in political developments. He served as an expert witness in early land claim cases in the Northern Territory, including Milirrpum v. Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971), advocated legal recognition and protection of Aboriginal sacred sites, and clashed in 1980 with the Liberal premier Sir Charles Court over the Noonkanbah dispute in the Kimberley region.

Usually seen puffing on one of his beloved pipes, Berndt was a larger-than-life character whose enthusiasm for his work was boundless and infectious. He was an unstinting supporter of graduate students. At UWA both anthropology and sociology prospered under his leadership; he recruited staff with an eye to maintaining both geographical and topical eclecticism in these disciplines. Known fondly as 'Prof', he ran his department on the 'God-professor' model, jokingly described as a 'participatory democracy' in which all staff participated while he made the major decisions.

Berndt was an avid and knowledgeable collector of Aboriginal and Asian art and artefacts. Although he and his wife seldom entertained at home—to be given a guided tour through their house-gallery was a great privilege—they were generous hosts, and Berndt loved to serve fine wines. In 1976 they set up an ethnographic museum at the university to accommodate, among other works, their collection of Aboriginal cultural materials. They took little time for recreation but shared a love of mystery novels. After Berndt’s retirement in December 1981 he was named professor emeritus and continued to publish steadily. The Berndts’ 1940s research into Aboriginal labour in the Northern Territory was written up as End of an Era (1987). Convinced of the necessity of communicating knowledge of Aboriginal Australian societies and culture to the public, they wrote children’s stories and books for high school students, and in 1988 revised their introductory reference work The World of the First Australians, originally published in 1964. They also co-authored a treatise on Aboriginal narratives, The Speaking Land (1989), and, returning to their previously unpublished research on the culture of the Yaraldi people of the lower Murray River region, produced A World That Was (1993). In all, Ronald Berndt wrote or edited thirty-five books, fifteen of them in collaboration with his wife.

Elected a fellow (1948) and honorary fellow (1982) of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and a member (1962) of the Social Science Research Council of Australia, Berndt served as president (1972–73) of the Royal Society of Western Australia, and received its medal in 1979. He became a fellow (1982) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. The Anthropological Society of Western Australia awarded him its Silver Jubilee medal in 1983. In 1987 UWA conferred on him an honorary doctorate of letters. That year he was appointed AM. Survived by his wife (d.1994), he died on 2 May 1990 at Wembley, Perth, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. There were no children. The Berndts’ contribution lives on through their endowment of the Berndt Research Foundation. In 1991 the museum of anthropology at UWA was named after them.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Tonkinson and M. Howard (eds), Going It Alone? (1990)
  • V. Amit (ed), Biographical Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology (2003)
  • Aboriginal History, vol 29, 2005, p 77
  • Australian, 12 Aug 1995, p 9
  • Berndt papers (Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Robert Tonkinson, 'Berndt, Ronald Murray (1916–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/berndt-ronald-murray-12202/text21879, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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