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Leonhard Adam (1891–1960)

by Greg Dening

This article was published:

Leonhard Adam (1891-1960), anthropologist and lawyer, was born on 16 December 1891 in Berlin, son of Meinhardt Michael Adam and his wife Katharina Clare Rosa, née Schmidt. Part Jewish in extraction, Leonhard studied at the Royal Frederick William Gymnasium and the Ethnological Museum. Ethnology (the passion of his life), law, economics and Sinology were his chosen subjects at the universities of Berlin and Greifswald (LL.D., 1916). Having completed a degree in practising law in 1920, he was appointed assistant judge (later district judge) in the provincial court, Berlin. Adam had already studied and published extensively in primitive law; his first field-work was among prisoners of war in Rumanian camps. He edited (1919-38) Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft (Journal of Comparative Jurisprudence). In 1931-33 he lectured in ethnological jurisprudence and primitive law at the Institute of Foreign Laws and was a member of the board of experts of the Ethnographical Museum, Berlin.

The Nazis' anti-Semitic laws stripped Adam of all official positions in 1933. Five years later he sought refuge in England where he taught at the University of London and published Primitive Art (1940). His academic haven was shattered when he was interned on 16 May 1940 as an `enemy alien' and dispatched to Australia. Among the most eminent of the gifted collectivity of scholars who arrived aboard the Dunera in September, he became pro-rector of `Collegium Taturense' in the internment camp at Tatura, Victoria, and gave lessons on primitive religion and ethnology.

Letters from Bronislaw Malinowski alerted Margaret Holmes, of the Australian Student Christian Movement, and Lady Masson to Adam's fate. On 29 May 1942 he was released on parole to the National Museum of Victoria, given residence at Queen's College, University of Melbourne, and placed under the supervision of Professor Max Crawford to embark upon a research project on the Aborigines' use of stone. At Christ Church, South Yarra, on 5 June 1943 he married a musician Julia Mary Baillie with Anglican rites.

As research scholar (1943-47), lecturer (1947-56) and part-time curator (1958-60) of the ethnological collection, Adam was always on the edge of the university's establishment. Mystified at the politics of an institution which had refused to introduce anthropology for sixty years, he poured out proposals which never came to pass. Then he made a fait accompli of an ethnological museum by exchange of artefacts on a picayune budget through an Australian and worldwide network. It was subsequently named the Leonhard Adam Ethnological Collection.

Naturalized on 21 February 1956, he travelled to Germany in 1957 to receive a doctorate from the University of Bonn and to have a volume of the journal he had edited dedicated to him. In 1960 he again returned to Europe as the University of Melbourne's delegate to the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Paris. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died suddenly of heart disease on 9 September 1960 in Bonn.

Adam's seminal work in primitive law and art had been completed before his coming to Australia. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1945. Poor health, the trauma of imprisonment and the ambivalence of his status at the University of Melbourne distracted him from further research and from converting his studies of Aboriginal artefacts into a major work. An unpublished list of his publications is in the university's archives.

Select Bibliography

  • Groote Eylandt Art: Leonhardt Adam Ethnological Collection Part One (Melb, 1973)
  • D. Wayne Orchiston, Warfare in Melanesia: The Leonhard Adam Ethnological Collection, Part Two (Melb, 1975)
  • B. Patkin, The Dunera Internees (Syd, 1979)
  • C. Pearl, The Dunera Scandal (Syd, 1983)
  • Oceania, 31,1960-61, p 161
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, 19 Apr 1957, p 14, Dec 1960, p 4
  • Collegium Taturense. No 4 Internment Camp, Tatura (Victoria). First Anniversary 1940-41: 26 Oct 1941 (typescript copies, University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Department of the Army, MP 1103/1, Registers containing Service and Casualty Forms (Form A.112) of Internees and Prisoners of War held in Australia, Aug 1939-Dee 1947, File no E 35000: Leonard [sic] Adam and MP 1103/2, Prisoners of War Information Bureau, Reports of POW and Internees, 1939-1945, Report no: Adam, Leonard [sic] (National Archives of Australia)
  • Adam files (Museum of Art, and Registry and Archives, University of Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Greg Dening, 'Adam, Leonhard (1891–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 December, 1891
Berlin, Germany


9 September, 1960 (aged 68)
Bonn, Germany

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.