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McConnel, Ursula Hope (1888–1957)

by Anne O'Gorman Perusco

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Ursula Hope McConnel (1888-1957), anthropologist, was born on 27 October 1888 at Cressbrook, near Toogoolawah, Queensland, fifth daughter and eighth of ten children of James Henry McConnel, grazier and farmer, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Kent, both Queensland born. David Cannon McConnel was her grandfather. Raised at Cressbrook (the family property and Shorthorn stud), Ursula was educated at the Brisbane High School for Girls and later at New England Girls' School, Armidale, New South Wales, where she took prizes in singing and languages. From 1905 to 1907 she attended courses in history, politics, literature and music at the women's department, King's College, London. Although once engaged, she never married, and pursued a career with vigour and dedication.

In her early years McConnel's academic interests varied. At the University of Queensland (B.A. Hons, 1918; M.A., 1931) she graduated with first-class honours in philosophy and also studied psychology in her brother-in-law Elton Mayo's department. In 1923 she began a doctorate in anthropology at University College, London, where she came under the influence of (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith and William Perry. Loneliness and stress brought on an illness and she returned to Australia in 1926 without finishing her thesis.

Supervised by Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown at the University of Sydney, McConnel began ethnographic research in 1927 among the Wik-Mungkana people on Cape York Peninsula. She visited far North Queensland on 'four or five' field-trips, the last in 1934. Australian Aboriginal culture was to be the focus of the bulk of her scholarship; she published numerous articles in Oceania and a book, Myths of the Munkan (Melbourne, 1957). The early 1930s proved the most productive years of her anthropological career, but it was also a period filled with disappointment. Although she received a Rockefeller fellowship (1931-33) to study under Edward Sapir at Yale University, Connecticut, United States of America, McConnel was bitterly frustrated that she failed to be awarded a Ph.D. from University College, London, on the basis of her publications. Moreover, she resented being passed over for academic appointments in Australia.

Financially secure from her investments in wool bonds, McConnel retired to Cressbrook in the mid-1930s. Early in the following decade she moved to Eagle Heights, south of Brisbane, where she continued to examine and document her field-notes and ethnographic collections. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 6 November 1957 at Hillcrest Private Hospital, Kelvin Grove, and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her ashes were buried at Cressbrook. The importance of McConnel's scholarly contribution was recognized after her death. With those of Donald Thomson, her publications form the foundations of present-day anthropological research on western Cape York Peninsula. She had devoted much of her life to this endeavour, driven by a sense of duty and justice towards the Aborigines with whom she had worked.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Marcus (ed), First in Their Field (Melb, 1993)
  • A. O'Gorman, Ursula McConnel: The Archaeology of an Anthropologist (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1989).

Citation details

Anne O'Gorman Perusco, 'McConnel, Ursula Hope (1888–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcconnel-ursula-hope-10917/text19393, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 31 May 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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