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Herbert Basedow (1881–1933)

by Ian Harmstorf

This article was published:

Herbert Basedow (1881-1933), by unknown photographer, 1925

Herbert Basedow (1881-1933), by unknown photographer, 1925

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4615

Herbert Basedow (1881-1933), anthropologist, geologist, explorer and medical practitioner, was born on 27 October 1881 at Kent Town, Adelaide, youngest son of Martin Peter Friedrich Basedow, newspaper proprietor, and his second wife Anna Clara Helena, née Muecke. Educated at the Higher Public School, Hanover, Germany, and Prince Alfred College in Adelaide, he attended the University of Adelaide in 1898-1902 (B.Sc., 1910) and the South Australian School of Mines and Industries.

In 1903 Basedow was a member of the South Australian Government North-West Prospecting Expedition, led by L. A. Wells; he studied natural history and geology, and compiled a detailed journal on the Aboriginals, collecting a vocabulary of about 1500 words of the Aluridja (Western Desert) and Aranda languages. Next year he published anthropological notes on the journey and in 1915 his full journal appeared, containing outstanding photographs of tribal Aboriginals.

From 1905 Basedow assisted H. Y. L. Brown, the government geologist, and was able to further his study of Aboriginals. His 1907 account of the western coastal tribes of the Northern Territory is especially valuable for its data on the Larakiya of the Darwin area. In 1906 he had begun to study the Aboriginal art and rock carvings in the Adnjamatana tribal area (Flinders Range) which he described in a paper read in Berlin next year.

Basedow studied medicine and anthropology at Breslau University in 1907-09 (Ph.D., 1908), at Heidelberg in 1909 and at Göttingen in 1909-10 (M.D., Ch.D.). At Breslau he worked with the famous anthropologist Hermann Klaatsch. Basedow carried out anatomical and pathological research on the collections of Australian skeletal materials in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. While abroad he looked into the making of brown coal briquettes for the South Australian government; on his return to Adelaide late in 1910 he was employed as assistant government geologist and government medical officer for remote districts.

He resigned in May 1911 to take up the position, newly created by the Federal government, of chief protector and chief medical inspector of Aboriginals at Darwin. Basedow approached this work with enthusiasm and energy, but he was over-idealistic and became rapidly disillusioned and dissatisfied. To the dismay of his loyal staff, he resigned in August, after only forty-five days in the Northern Territory. He claimed the Aborigines Act, 1911, was unworkable, yet before taking up the post he had ignored requests to discuss possible amendments with the minister. He was averse to being supervised by the Territory's acting administrator who had found him 'tactless and unpractical', lacking 'balance of mind' and entertaining 'unwarrantedly large ideas of his position'.

Basedow entered private medical and geological practice in Adelaide and continued to publish on anthropology in learned journals. He was one of the few men of his time actively interested in recording traditional Aboriginal life. In 1914 he and Rev. H. Howard failed to persuade the respective governments to declare 60,000 square miles (155,399 km²) in the Tompkinson, Mann and Musgrave ranges an Aboriginal reserve. As leader of a search for munition minerals in the northern Kimberley of Western Australia in 1916, he found time to gather valuable ethnological data on this area, published in an article in 1918.

On 4 June 1919 Basedow married Olive Nell Noyes in Adelaide; they had no children. In August they made a medical tour of the north-east of the State, and next year made a longer medical relief expedition, funded by the South Australian and Commonwealth governments, to tend, examine and report on the prevalence of disease among Central Australian Aboriginals; his wife acted as nurse. They visited Hermannsburg mission station where he thought the work of Rev. Karl Strehlow the best of its kind in many similar centres he had seen. Basedow examined 600 Aboriginals and returned to press again for a hinterland reservation, because of the danger of complete extermination of some tribes. He reported humanely and expertly to the Commonwealth on the urgency of the Aboriginals' medical plight, and suggested appointment of a medical officer at Alice Springs. The Commonwealth government respected his views, but, remembering its previous contract, looked on Basedow sceptically.

From this time he employed two Aboriginal girls in his home at Kent Town, and became a vigorous controversialist in the local press on behalf of Aboriginals. In the early 1920s he led a search for the remains of Ludwig Leichhardt, and visited Java. In 1925 Basedow published The Australian Aboriginal, a positive contribution at a time when little detailed material was available to the public. Basedow was not a socio-cultural anthropologist and was not in a position to provide a systematic analysis of Aboriginal life. However, the book encapsulated his experience with the race over twenty years.

In 1926 Basedow led the First Mackay Exploration Expedition on a geographical and scientific investigation of the south-west of the Northern Territory; it included a wireless-outfit and photographic and recording apparatus. He collected Aboriginal songs and other material in the Petermann Ranges where his language skill proved essential to the expedition's success. To spell the camels, he and Donald Mackay walked almost two-fifths of the 1300 miles (2092 km) covered. They established good relations with local Aboriginals, fixed the correct position of Ernest Giles's landfalls, and explored unknown country north of his route. In 1928 Basedow made 'his most important piece of zoological and anthropological research' when he led the Second Mackay Exploration Expedition towards the Gulf of Carpentaria and into the heart of Arnhem Land.

In 1927 he had been successful in his second attempt to represent Barossa in the House of Assembly for the Country Party; defeated in 1930, he was re-elected as an Independent in 1933. His chief purpose was to assist the Aboriginals. One newspaper said that he had been elected because of his 'belovedness': others saw his failure to shine in parliament as due to an 'inability to work with others'. Easily riled, he was impatient of those who did not share his vision.

An early conservationist, Basedow wanted sanctuaries and national parks to preserve rare inland flora and fauna. Many insects and plants and a mollusc he discovered were named after him. Chairman of several central Australian mining companies, he promoted the search for oil and in the 1920s was president of the Australian Petroleum Association in Melbourne—he also partnered his brother as a vigneron. Sometime chairman of the Aborigines' Protection League, he was a member of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, and an honorary corresponding member of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, publishing in its journal. He was also a fellow of the Geological societies of London and Berlin and belonged to other learned societies in Germany.

An unusually tall, sinewy man with great broad shoulders, Basedow was to be seen in Adelaide in summer striding along in his grey silk sun-helmet, noticeable for his height and the remoteness of his gaze. Survived by his wife, he died suddenly of peripheral venous thrombosis on 4 June 1933 at Kent Town, and was buried in North Road cemetery. His obituary in Nature claimed that, 'since the death of Sir Baldwin Spencer Dr Basedow had been generally recognized as the first authority on the aborigines of Australia'. In 1934 the Australian government bought part of his rare ethnological collection, which is in the Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra.

In 1935 his Knights of the Boomerang was published. In it Basedow had wished 'to appear as one of the Aborigines', whom he described as 'simple but unapproachable, humble but dignified, barbarous but kind-hearted, and ungrateful but generous'. He castigated Australians for their 'racial homicide', and their failure to 'protect or give the vote to Aborigines'. It was frequently said of him, after his early death, that he would have achieved greater eminence if he had not spread his remarkable talents so widely.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 28 (1904), 29 (1905), 31 (1907)
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, 13 (1913), and Journal, 44 (1914)
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, 15 (1915), 17 (1918), 29 (1927-28)
  • Geographical Journal (London), 74 (1929), no 5
  • Nature, 17 June 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Sept 1911
  • Mail (Adelaide), 20 Dec 1919, 18 Sept 1926
  • Observer (Adelaide), 15, 20 May 1926, 28 July 1928
  • Queenslander (Brisbane), 12 Apr 1928
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 8 June 1933
  • Bunyip (Gawler), 9 June 1933
  • Country News (Adelaide), 10 June 1933
  • PRG 324, and biographical notes and records under Basedow (State Records of South Australia)
  • H. Basedow, Al 12/2149, A3 NT 22/2805, 14/7104 (National Archives of Australia)
  • printed catalogue under Basedow (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Harmstorf, 'Basedow, Herbert (1881–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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