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Geddes, William Robert (Bill) (1916–1989)

by Jack Golson

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

William Robert (Bill) Geddes (1916-1989), anthropologist, was born on 29 April 1916 at New Plymouth, New Zealand, youngest of five children of Scottish parents Joseph Geddes, farmer, and his wife Edith, née Urquhart. After attending New Plymouth Boys’ High School Bill went to the University of Otago (BA, 1938; MA, 1939), Dunedin, where he majored in philosophy. In 1939-40 he was a demonstrator in the university’s department of psychology. He put H. D. Skinner’s one-year anthropology course to good use during his service (1941-45) in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Rising to staff sergeant, he spent most of his time in Fiji. This experience was the basis for his Polynesian Society memoir, Deuba: A Study of a Fijian Village (1945), written during the Bougainville campaign, and his University of London (Ph.D., 1948) thesis, `An Analysis of Cultural Change in Fiji’, written at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1947-48 he lectured in psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London.

On 27 March 1948 Geddes married a New Zealander, Maud Seymour Eaton, at St Alban’s parish church, Golders Green, Middlesex; she died in 1956. Selected to work with the Land Dayaks of Sarawak under a scheme sponsored by the Colonial Social Science Research Council, he published his work: first as a report to the council, The Land Dayaks of Sarawak (1954); and then as a well received book, Nine Dayak Nights (1957). In 1951 he took a lectureship at the Auckland University College (senior lecturer 1954; associate professor 1957).

While visiting Peking (Beijing) in 1956, Geddes contacted Fei Hsiao-tung, a Chinese anthropologist who had written Peasant Life in China (1939), a study of a village on the Yangtze plain west of Shanghai. Fei Hsiao-tung helped to negotiate an arrangement whereby Geddes was able to write a sequel, Peasant Life in Communist China (1963), based on an intensive four-day re-investigation. It was, according to the sinologist Dr Jonathan Unger, `a special window’ on a period when most sources were either governmental or partisan.

For Geddes, anthropology was important as a force for cross-cultural understanding, tolerance and appropriate action. When he took up the chair in social anthropology at the University of Sydney in 1959, he made the subject available from first year, rather than only from second year as it had been previously. In 1964-70 he chaired the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, Sydney. On 24 May 1963 he had married Ngaere Adele Te Punga, a Maori schoolteacher, at the registrar general’s office, Sydney.

Geddes believed that anthropologists should play a role in practical affairs in their areas of expertise. Between 1957 and 1962 he had undertaken three spells of field-work among one of the ethnic minorities of northern Thailand—hill tribesmen in and at the margins of the Golden Triangle. In 1964-65 he was adviser to the Tribal Research Centre set up in Chiang Mai by the Thai government. His major monograph, Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand (1976), discussed the economic and cultural role of opium among the Miao (Hmong) in particular and the hill tribes in general. He was a member of United Nations study missions on opium in 1966-67 and 1970; for the latter he drew up a plan for alternative crops. In the New York Review of Books of 19 November 1970 two anthropologists alleged that data collected by the TRC was being used by the Thai and American governments for counter-insurgency purposes in South-East Asia. Australian activists opposed to the Vietnam War accused Geddes of complicity, leading him to take legal action that resulted in an out-of-court settlement in his favour and a public retraction. Some anthropologists asked, more generally, whether accepting any government or private contracts threatened academic autonomy and free inquiry. The `Thailand controversy’ added to existing tensions in the anthropology department in Sydney.

Increasingly Geddes turned his attention to other interests, including ethnographic film. He was a skilled and sensitive still photographer, who had taught himself filming. His first effort was with the Miao in the late 1950s, and the British Broadcasting Corporation produced a thirty-minute version of it, The Opium People, with commentary by David Attenborough. In 1961 he filmed The Land Dayaks of Borneo (produced in 1966), and in the mid-1960s, Miao Year (produced in 1968). Both were examples of the descriptive documentary used in education to complement written accounts. He was quick to appreciate the importance of film as a record of fast-disappearing ways of life. A foundation (1962) councillor of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, he convened its film committee for almost a decade from 1963 and played a significant role in the development of ethnographic filming. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Fiji and Sarawak, he filmed ceremonies which were unlikely to be performed much longer.

Following his retirement in 1981, Geddes travelled widely to represent the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (of which he was a fellow) at meetings of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils. He chaired the planning committee of the association’s fifth biennial conference, held in Sydney in 1983, and edited the proceedings of one of its symposia, Asian Perspectives in Social Science (1985).

Bill Geddes displayed a stubborn fixity of purpose that went well with his stocky build. He mixed tenacity with shrewdness and tempered both with a deep humanity and a self-deprecating sense of humour. Quiet and unassertive, he enjoyed the pleasures of gardening, fishing and the company of friends. Survived by his wife, he died on 27 April 1989 at Wahroonga and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Flanagan, Imperial Anthropology (1971?)
  • P. Read, Charles Perkins (1990)
  • American Anthropologist, vol 61, no 2, 1959, p 322, vol 66, no 3, 1964, p 688, vol 69, no 1, 1967, p 127
  • Anthropology Newsletter (American Anthropological Association), Feb 1976, p 3
  • J. Golson, `Professor W. R. Geddes’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 2, 1989, p 98
  • Oceania, vol 60, no 1, 1989, p 60
  • Anthropology Today, vol 8, no 2, 1992, p 22
  • Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol 13, no 2, 2002, p 155
  • W. Geddes, service record (Archives New Zealand).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jack Golson, 'Geddes, William Robert (Bill) (1916–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/geddes-william-robert-bill-12529/text22547, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 November 2018.

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

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