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Adolphus Peter Elkin (1891–1979)

by Tigger Wise

This article was published:

Adolphus Peter Elkin (1891-1979), Anglican clergyman and professor of anthropology, was born on 27 March 1891 at West Maitland, New South Wales, second son of Reuben Elkin, a salesman from England, and his native-born wife Ellen Wilhelmina, née Bower, a seamstress of German stock. Reuben came from a family of Jewish intellectuals who had emigrated to New Zealand; his father was a rabbi at Auckland. Peter's only brother died as an infant in 1891. Reuben and Ellen were divorced in 1901 and Peter never saw his father again. Next year his mother died of typhoid. He was raised as an Anglican by his maternal grandparents.

Educated at Singleton and at Maitland East Boys' High School, Elkin matriculated in 1907 and worked as a clerk for the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney. He spent the succeeding four years in country towns. Dissatisfied with banking as a career, in 1912 he won a scholarship for candidates for Holy Orders and entered St Paul's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1915; M.A., 1922); his contemporaries included V. G. Childe and H. V. Evatt. Elkin was appointed assistant-curate at Newcastle cathedral, ordained priest on 17 March 1916 and posted to small country parishes in the diocese. From 1919, as vice-warden, he taught full time at St John's Theological College, Armidale, under (Bishop) E. H. Burgmann.

Already fascinated by Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), in 1918 Elkin made a chance visit to the outback near Bourke which whetted his interest in Aboriginal society. Intrigued by artefacts, deserted occupation-sites and burial grounds, he began to read widely about the Aborigines. No anthropology courses were then available in Australian universities, but he chose the religion of the Australian Aborigines as the topic for his master's thesis and lectured his students at St John's on human origins. On 7 January 1922 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Burwood, Sydney, he married Sara (Sally) Thompson, a nursing sister from Ireland whom he had met during the influenza epidemic. While rector of Wollombi in 1922-25, he taught part time for the university's Department of Tutorial Classes, offering lectures on early society and culture to the citizens of the Hunter Valley.

Having resigned his living in 1925, Elkin studied the Australian Aborigines under (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith at University College, London (Ph.D., 1927). In 1927 A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, foundation professor of anthropology in Sydney, helped Elkin to secure a Rockefeller grant to undertake field-work in the Kimberley, Western Australia. He not only met traditional Aborigines, but also observed the brutality of the frontier, the clash between settlers and indigenous tribes, the ambivalent place of the missions and the apparently aimless policies of governments. That year he started campaigning for what he regarded as social justice for the Aboriginal people. He returned to New South Wales in 1928.

On the understanding that he could take time to pursue his anthropological interests, in 1929 Elkin became rector of Morpeth. He also co-edited the Morpeth Review, a well-regarded periodical published by St John's College (by then relocated at Morpeth). Convinced of the urgency of the Aborigines' plight, he felt that research must be carried out—and published—before it was too late. He contributed to the Morpeth Review and Oceania. In addition to publishing academic material, Elkin wrote a stream of letters and articles for the popular press on race relations and the problem of prejudice. He was an indefatigable speaker who fought throughout New South Wales for justice and citizenship for Aborigines. In 1930 he received a grant to do field-work in South Australia. By the time Elkin came home, Radcliffe-Brown had resigned and the future of the anthropology department was in doubt.

Late in 1932 Elkin was appointed lecturer-in-charge of the anthropology department for one year. Funds were eventually secured for the chair and he was promoted professor in December 1933. Virtually in total charge of anthropology in Australia, he was an adviser to governments, editor of Oceania and director of field-research through the Australian National Research Council (chairman of its anthropological committee, 1933-42, executive-member, 1942-55, and chairman, 1954-55). He taught all students in the discipline, trained cadets for Papua and New Guinea, administered his department increasingly autocratically and undertook field-research. His succession of female research-assistants included Phyllis Kaberry, Camilla Wedgwood, Olive Pink and Ursula McConnel. Some thought him prickly and conceited: he strenuously opposed C. P. Mountford's leadership of the Australian-American expedition to Arnhem Land (1948) and once reviewed his own book in Oceania (December 1974).

The title of professor of anthropology strengthened Elkin's standing as president (1933-62) of the Association for the Protection of Native Races and vice-president of the Aborigines Protection Board of New South Wales (Aborigines Welfare Board from 1940). Following a large meeting held in Sydney in 1934 to protest against the death sentence passed on an Aborigine in the Northern Territory, Elkin and the A.P.N.R. were partly responsible for gaining a reprieve; it was followed by an appeal and the eventual release of Tuckiar, whom they believed had not received a fair trial when charged with the murder of a White man. Elkin also managed to have patrol officers appointed in the Northern Territory in the mid-1930s; in 1939 he advised (Sir) John McEwen, minister for the interior, on the organization of a new department of native affairs. Elkin spent years championing the Aboriginal cause—as he interpreted it—before State and Federal governments.

As an anthropologist, he was a meticulous observer and recorder, with a particular interest in ritual and kinship; in terms of theory, he was a functionalist, a diffusionist, a Darwinist. In his religious beliefs, he was a humanist—in the tradition of his heroes Frederick Maurice and Charles Kingsley. As a lobbyist for the rights of Aborigines, he believed in the politics of compromise, courtesy and restraint; he proved tenacious in method and optimistic in outlook. Elkin regarded protection as the basis for growth and considered that Aborigines would inevitably be assimilated by White Australia (although he did not envisage them losing their identity in the process). He was a pragmatist, a plain speaker, a conservative who believed there was no point wasting energy on battles that could not be won.

As Elkin grew older and Aboriginal activism increased, his attitudes were severely criticized. Many saw his assimilation policy as weakening Aboriginality. Many interpreted his work on the Aborigines Welfare Board as meddling interference. Others felt he should have been more confrontationist, more opposed to authority, more aggressive in dealing with White racists when championing the Aborigines of the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys. This was not his way. He believed in adaptation—that all human beings must adjust to their circumstances—White must adapt to Black, and Black to White.

Elkin wrote numerous articles, reports, reviews, books, pamphlets, introductions and chapters, and was a voluminous correspondent. His detailed and careful description of a unique way of life in The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them (1938) moved hundreds of students some way towards a sympathetic appreciation of Aborigines as fellow human beings. This book, with Aboriginal Men of High Degree (1946), in which his respect for the tribal elders is evident, and the numerous field-work reports in Oceania highlighted Elkin's academic contribution. The political work of which he was most proud was Citizenship for the Aborigines (1944). The Diocese of Newcastle (1955) was his historical tribute to the Church of England, and Morpeth and I (1937) his personal reminiscence.

Prominent in scientific circles, Elkin was president of the Anthropological (1934) and Royal (1940-41) societies of New South Wales, the Australian Anthropological Association (1941) and the Australian Institute of Sociology (1941-44); he was a fellow (from 1937) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Australian councillor (from 1947) on the Pacific Science Association, a fellow (from 1953) of the Social Science Research Council of Australia, a founding councillor (1961) of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney. He enjoyed music and playing tennis, and belonged to the Royal Empire (Commonwealth) Society.

Although Elkin retired in 1956, his 'thin, bird-like figure' was seen at meetings of the university senate; he was chairman of St Paul's College council and helped to establish International House, a residence for overseas students. He remained involved in Aboriginal causes, edited Oceania until his death and was foundation editor (1966-79) of Archaeology & Physical Anthropology in Oceania. Elkin was awarded the local Royal Society's James Cook medal (1956), A.N.Z.A.A.S.'s Mueller medal (1957), and the Herbert E. Gregory medal (1961); he was appointed C.M.G. in 1966 and in 1970 received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Sydney. In his eighties, he lived at Mowll Memorial Village and wrote prolifically. After collapsing at a meeting at International House, Elkin died on 9 July 1979 at the university and was cremated; his wife and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Wise, The Self-Made Anthropologist (Syd, 1985)
  • R. MacLeod (ed), The Commonwealth of Science, ANZAAS and the Scientific Enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988 (Melb, 1988)
  • Oceania, 50, no 2, Dec 1979, p 81
  • People (Sydney), 17 Jan 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Oct 1928, 22 Dec 1933, 2 Oct 1941, 17 Jan 1957, 18 Aug 1961, 11 July 1979
  • A. P. Elkin papers (University of Sydney Library).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tigger Wise, 'Elkin, Adolphus Peter (1891–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Peter Elkin, n.d.

Peter Elkin, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 06647

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1891
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia


9 July, 1979 (aged 88)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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