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Phyllis Evelyn Duguid (1904–1993)

by W. H. Edwards

This article was published:

Phyllis Evelyn Duguid (1904–1993), teacher, and Aboriginal and women’s rights advocate, was born on 16 October 1904 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, third of six children of locally born parents Frank Lade, Methodist clergyman, and his wife Lillian Frances, née Millard. Both parents were actively involved in the temperance movement, her father travelling extensively to give lectures. The family moved to Adelaide in 1911, and Phyllis attended Miss Henderson’s school for girls, and Methodist Ladies College, before studying classics and English at the University of Adelaide (BA Hons, 1925), where she also gained a Blue in hockey. She was strongly supported by her mother, saying that ‘she wouldn’t allow any of us just to stay home and be what was called a homegirl, until we had done something else’ (Duguid 1982, 4). After working briefly as a tutor in English at the university, she became senior English teacher at the Presbyterian Girls’ College. On 18 December 1930 at the Methodist Church, Kent Town, she married Charles Duguid (d. 1986), a surgeon.

Two things sparked Duguid’s interest in Aboriginal issues.  A long-term patient of Charles told stories of conditions in Central and Northern Australia, followed by the widely reported case of an Aboriginal man, Dhakiyarr (Tuckia), in which the High Court (1934) found that he had been wrongfully convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to death. Following Charles’s visit to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands in 1935, Phyllis supported his proposal to establish a mission based, in contrast to practices of the time, on the principles of respect for culture and language. With the support of the Presbyterian Church and the government of South Australia, Ernabella Mission opened in 1937. Together with M. E. Eaton, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she visited Central Australia in 1938 to investigate reports of abuse of Aboriginal women. As a result of their journey, they formed the League for the Protection and Advancement of Aboriginal and Half-Caste Women, with Phyllis as the founding president. It became the Aborigines Advancement League of South Australia (AALSA) in 1950.

During the late 1940s Duguid actively supported her husband’s campaign against the creation of a military firing range at Woomera with a flight path over Aboriginal reserves. In 1944 she fostered a six-year-old Aboriginal boy, Sydney James Cook, who had been enrolled at King’s College, Adelaide. He lived with the family until 1950 when he was sent to Roper River in the Northern Territory, the Duguids believing that he would benefit by growing to manhood in an Aboriginal community. In 1953 the Duguids organised a meeting in the Adelaide Town Hall where five Aboriginal people (George Rankin, Mona Paul, Peter Tilmouth, Ivy Mitchell, and Geoff Barnes) spoke about their experiences of discrimination. The Duguids encouraged them to train and seek work as nurses and teachers. Some, such as Lowjita O’Donoghue, became leaders of emerging Aboriginal movements. An outcome of this meeting was the establishment in November 1956 of Wiltja Hostel in suburban Millswood to accommodate Aboriginal girls from country regions attending secondary schools in Adelaide. Phyllis maintained a close interest in the hostel.

Identifying as a Christian socialist, Duguid extended her concerns to others she saw as members of an underclass in society, especially women and girls. She was a member of the WCTU, the University Women’s Club (president 1932), and the statutory Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board (1945–66), which she later described as ‘very rewarding work’ (Duguid 1982, 16). Minutes of the board show that members were aware of abuse within some institutions and took action to address it. In 2004 a South Australian government commission of inquiry into the care of state wards found that ‘the alleged sexual abuse occurred in every type of care from the 1940s onwards’ (South Australia 2008, xiii).

Duguid held numerous offices in the League of Women Voters of South Australia, becoming its final president in 1979. In 1944 she had published a pamphlet, The Economic Status of the Homemaker, in which she advocated ‘homes founded on the true partnership of men and women who are free, equal and interdependent’ (Duguid 1944, 11). She wrote on equal pay for equal work, and chaired the first meeting of the Status of Women Council in South Australia. She wrote and broadcast on issues such as temperance, prison reform, and prostitution. A love of literature enriched her writing and public speaking. Her sense of humour found expression in poetry, written for family and friends. Living by the conviction that ‘even might itself hath not the power of gentleness’ (Duguid, pers. comm.), she possessed wisdom, grace, and patience that complemented the determination of her husband. 

Known to her Pitjantjatjara friends as Kungka (Woman), Phyllis was awarded the OAM in 1987 for service to Aboriginal welfare. She died on 9 March 1993 at Linden Park, survived by a son and a daughter. Her ashes were interred next to the remains of her husband at Ernabella. The Duguid Indigenous Endowment and related travelling scholarship, founded in memory of Phyllis and Charles, are administered by the Australian National University. The University of South Australia and Flinders University share the biennial Duguid memorial lecture.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Barnes, Nancy. Munyi’s Daughter: A Spirited Brumby. Henley Beach, SA: Seaview Press, 2000)
  • Duguid, Phyllis. An Impression of Ernabella, by Mrs Chas Duguid. Melbourne: Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, 1938
  • Duguid, Phyllis. Interview by Mary Hutchison, 13 August 1982.  Transcript.  Australian Federation of University Women Oral History Project. State Library of South Australia
  • Duguid, Rosemary. Personal communication
  • Kerin, Rani. Doctor Do-Good: Charles Duguid and Aboriginal Advancement 1930s1970s. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011
  • Edwards, Bill. Mission in the Musgraves: Ernabella Mission 193773, A Place of Relationships.  Black Forest, SA: Uniting Church Historical Society (S. A.), 2012
  • South Australia. Parliamentary Papers, no. 229, 1 April 2008

Additional Resources

Citation details

W. H. Edwards, 'Duguid, Phyllis Evelyn (1904–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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