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Charles Duguid (1884–1986)

by W. H. Edwards

This article was published:

Charles Duguid (1884-1986), medical practitioner and Aboriginal rights campaigner, was born on 6 April 1884 at Saltcoats, Scotland, eldest of seven children of Charles Duguid (pronounced Dewgood), schoolteacher, and his wife Jane, née Kinnier. He attended the High School of Glasgow, and studied arts and medicine at the University of Glasgow (MA, 1905; MB, Ch.B., 1909), where he won twenty-one prizes. A full Blue, he represented the university in quarter-mile and half-mile events, his red hair earning him the nickname `the Scarlet Runner’. After graduating he practised medicine at Glasgow.

In 1911 Duguid travelled to Australia as a ship’s medical officer. On board he met and became engaged to Irene Isabella Young, an Australian returning home from England, and decided that his future lay in Australia. Back in Scotland he assisted in a practice that served four mining villages; his observations of poverty and suffering there were to influence his later concern for social justice. Next year he migrated to Australia, again working his passage as a ship’s doctor. On 23 October 1912 he and Irene married with Congregational forms at the Collins Street Independent Church, Melbourne. He practised in the Wimmera township of Minyip before moving to Adelaide in 1914.

On 5 February 1917 Duguid was appointed captain, Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. He treated casualties in the Middle East (March-July) before returning to Australia in a hospital ship. His AIF appointment terminated on 5 October. He wrote about his war experiences in From the Suez Canal to Gaza with the Australian Light Horse (1917?) and The Desert Trail (1919). After a trip to Scotland in 1919 for postgraduate study he bought a house at Magill, Adelaide, where he set up practice, while also working as a surgeon at the Memorial Hospital, North Adelaide. He became active in local branches of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, Legacy and Toc H.

Duguid undertook further medical study in Britain in 1927. His wife, returning home separately with their son, died suddenly at sea. In 1929 he met Phyllis Evelyn Lade, daughter of Rev. Frank Lade and an English teacher at Presbyterian Girls College, of which he was a councillor (1922-34). They married on 18 December 1930 at the Kent Town Methodist Church. That year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. A patient, who was a missionary in the Northern Territory, had told Duguid of abuses suffered by Aborigines there. In 1934 he decided to visit Darwin and look into the situation himself. Arriving by train at Alice Springs in July, he was asked to perform emergency surgery and, having missed his connection to Darwin, stayed in the area for over three weeks. He was appalled by the treatment that he saw meted out to Aborigines, and by their poor living conditions. At Hermannsburg Mission he visited Pastor Friedrich Albrecht and met Albert Namatjira, with whom he became friends.

In 1935 Duguid was elected the first lay moderator of the Presbyterian Church in South Australia and president of the Aborigines Protection League. Albrecht had suggested that he investigate conditions in the Musgrave Ranges, in north-western South Australia. In June, with R. M. Williams, he journeyed to Ernabella, a pastoral lease, and for the first time met Pitjantjatjara people—thus beginning a relationship with them that was to last for fifty years. Gilpin, a part-Aboriginal youth, guided him farther west. Duguid was again disturbed by his observations of discrimination and of abuse of Aboriginal workers and women, and by evidence of increasing health problems. He discussed with his wife the possibility of establishing a Christian mission to serve as a `buffer between the Aborigines and the encroaching white man’. They decided that there should be `no compulsion nor imposition of our way of life on the Aborigines, nor deliberate interference with tribal custom’ and that the vernacular language should be used, medical care offered, and responsibility passed to the local people as soon as possible. In 1936 he visited Haasts Bluff, west of Hermannsburg, with Albrecht. That year, despite opposition from some influential members, including Rev. John Flynn, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia approved Duguid’s proposal to establish a mission in the Musgrave Ranges. With support from the government of South Australia, Ernabella Mission was founded in 1937.

Duguid and his wife also took an interest in the children of mixed descent living in Cole-brook Home, Quorn, run by the United Aborigines Mission. For six weeks over Christmas 1935 thirty-four had stayed at the Duguids’ home. Duguid was to maintain contact with them into adulthood and to assist their struggle for equality with White people. In 1939 he toured the Aboriginal reserves west of Ernabella with Albrecht, Theodor Strehlow and Rev. Harry Taylor, the superintendent of Ernabella. From the Petermann Ranges they travelled on camels, guided by a Pitjantjatjara man, Tjuintjara, who became Duguid’s close friend and later lived at Ernabella.

Appointed a founding member (1940) of South Australia’s Aborigines Protection Board, Duguid inspected reserves throughout the State, noting abuses against Aborigines on pastoral properties and discrimination in education. The Duguids, with their two children and their fostered Aboriginal son, Sydney James Cook, visited Ernabella in 1946. Soon afterwards they heard of the British proposal to test guided weapons over South Australia from a base to be built at Woomera. Concerned about the impact of the rocket range on the inhabitants of the Central Australian reserves, Duguid criticised the scheme at public meetings in Adelaide and, with Donald Thomson, in Melbourne. Duguid resigned from the Aborigines Protection Board when it approved the proposal, but as a result of the protests a patrol officer, Walter MacDougall, was appointed at Woomera.

During a measles epidemic at Ernabella in 1948 Duguid helped to care for the sick. In 1951 he reported on health needs of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. President (1951-61) of the Aborigines Advancement League of South Australia, in 1953 he arranged a meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall at which five Aborigines spoke of their experiences. One told of discrimination against young Aboriginal women applying for entrance to nursing training at Royal Adelaide Hospital. The Duguids supported moves to break down this barrier. Another outcome of the meeting was the establishment in 1956 by the AAL of Wiltja Hostel at Millswood, to accommodate Aboriginal country girls attending secondary schools in Adelaide.

Duguid was president (1944-60) of the District and Bush Nursing Society of South Australia. Following a motorcar accident in 1956 he retired as a surgeon and took up an interest in geriatric medicine. Under the auspices of the AAL, he published The Central Aborigines Reserve (1957). He and his wife were leaders of a campaign that in 1958 resulted in the repealing of a clause in the Police Offences Act which had enabled police to arrest Aborigines for consorting with non-Aborigines. That year he was elected inaugural president of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. The Duguids continued to visit Ernabella, and welcomed the mission’s choir to Adelaide in 1954 and 1966. He wrote No Dying Race (1963) and an autobiography, Doctor and the Aborigines (1972).

Stubborn in defence of the rights of the under-privileged, and sometimes impetuous, Duguid fought for justice and fiercely opposed hypocrisy and incompetence in the administration of Aboriginal affairs. His concerns and actions were motivated by his Scottish Presbyterian faith and by his conviction that in this changing world one thing remains unchanged—`the astonishing power of selfless love’. By the 1960s, however, Aboriginal leaders in organisations such as the FCAA were objecting to the assimilationist approach of Duguid and other white campaigners, considering it paternalistic. For his part, Duguid was dismayed by the emergence of the `Black Power’ movement.

In 1971 Duguid was appointed OBE. Next year he received what he considered his greatest honour: a letter from the Ernabella people requesting that when he died, his body be buried at the mission, `so that the Aboriginals will always remember that he was one of us and that he faithfully helped us’. The Pitjantjatjara people called him Tjilpi, or `respected old man’. In 1980 he attended a meeting in Adelaide at which Pitjantjatjara people met with members of parliament to press their claim for recognition of their land rights, which was granted in 1981. The Ernabella choir made a special visit to Adelaide to sing at his hundredth birthday. He died on 5 December 1986 in his home at Kent Town and was buried in the Ernabella Mission cemetery. His wife (d.1993), their son and daughter, and the son of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Barnes, Munyi’s Daughter (2000)
  • S. Taffe, Black and White Together (2005)
  • People (Sydney), 14 Feb 1951, p 42
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 Dec 1981, p 4
  • S. Kerin, `Doctor Do-good’? Charles Duguid and Aboriginal Politics, 1930s-1970s (PhD thesis, Australian National University, 2004)
  • Duguid papers (National Library of Australia and State Libary of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

W. H. Edwards, 'Duguid, Charles (1884–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Dr Charles Duguid, c.1936

Dr Charles Duguid, c.1936

National Library of Australia, PIC Row 12/1/5 #PIC/P773/296

Life Summary [details]


6 April, 1884
Saltcoats, Scotland


5 December, 1986 (aged 102)
Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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