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Henry Kenneth Fry (1886–1959)

by Philip Jones

This article was published:

Henry Kenneth Fry (1886-1959), anthropologist and medical practitioner, was born on 25 May 1886 in North Adelaide, fourth child of Henry Thomas Fry (d.1899), warehouseman, and his wife Margaret Hannah, née Phillips. Kenneth was educated at Prince Alfred College and the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1905; M.B., B.S., 1908; M.D., 1934); as South Australian Rhodes scholar for 1909, he proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, where in 1912 he obtained another B.Sc. and diplomas in public health and anthropology. Next year he succeeded Herbert Basedow as chief medical inspector of Aborigines, based in Darwin. Fry made several trips to remote localities to assess Aboriginal health. He kept a journal of his expedition to Melville and Bathurst islands in which he described a Tiwi pukumani burial ceremony; in 1914 he sent thirty-four ethnographic objects, including a canoe and four burial poles, to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Appointed captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force, on 20 August 1914, Fry sailed for the Middle East with the 3rd Field Ambulance. He was at Gallipoli in 1915 before being sent to France in March 1916 as deputy assistant director of medical services, 2nd Division. For supervising the evacuation of the wounded while under constant shell-fire at Pozières and Sausage Valley in July-August, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In October 1917 he was promoted lieutenant colonel and given command of the 13th Field Ambulance. Returning to Adelaide, on 21 October 1918 he married Dorothy Editha Deeley with Anglican rites at the Church of the Epiphany, Crafers. By January 1919 he was back in France as temporary colonel and A.D.M.S., 5th Division. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 26 December. He was thrice mentioned in dispatches.

At Eastwood, Adelaide, Fry established a private practice in a house of his own design which incorporated a surgery, laboratory and one of the first X-ray units in the State. From 1920 he lectured in materia medica and therapeutics in the neurology department at the university. He was also an honorary physician at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and an official visitor to Parkside Mental Hospital. A member (from 1923) and president (1938) of the Royal Society of South Australia, he was a founding fellow (1939) of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. With Archibald Watson, (Sir) John Cleland, Robert Pulleine, Frederic Wood Jones and Draper Campbell, Fry had formed the Board for Anthropological Research in 1925.

In August 1929, at the height of a major drought, he travelled by train to Alice Springs and, at Hermannsburg, joined the board's fifth expedition to Central Australia. Medical members of the team successfully treated the Aborigines for scurvy and received tribal status which facilitated their future research in the region. Fry assisted the ethnologist Norman Tindale in taking unique film records and in gathering sociological data, and conducted psychological and sensory tests. He devised a succinct but flexible framework to record Aboriginal classificatory kinship systems. Termed the 'Fry Framework' by Tindale, it enabled the documentation of varying kinship structures across Aboriginal Australia. Tindale's 'Fry Frameworks' for two hundred Aboriginal groups are held in the South Australian Museum, as are Fry's anthropological notebooks. Fry accompanied the board's expeditions to MacDonald Downs (1930), Cockatoo Creek (1931), Mount Liebig (1932), Ernabella (1933), Diamantina (1934), the Granites (1936) and Nepabunna (1937). In the 1930s he also helped Tindale to record Aboriginal sites on the Coorong with the Tangane elder, Milerum.

The first Oxford-trained anthropologist to work in Australia, in 1930-57 Fry published over twenty scientific papers on Aboriginal kinship, psychology and mythology. In London in 1931 he lectured to the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. His contributions to Oceania impressed A. P. Elkin who in 1935 urged the Federal minister for the interior, Thomas Paterson, to appoint Fry as a medical anthropologist to the Aborigines of Central Australia. Fry decided, however, that he could not work under C. E. Cook, the chief protector of Aborigines then in Darwin.

From 1938 Fry was a part-time public health officer for the City of Adelaide; soon after taking up his post, he formulated plans for the mass radiological examination of South Australians. In 1937 he had moved to Crafers in the Adelaide Hills where he devoted much of his time to the care of a reserve of native vegetation which now bears his name. The clear skies enabled him to pursue his hobby of astronomy. He continued to write about Aborigines and in 1951 joined the last of the board's major expeditions, to Yuendumu in Central Australia. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died on 22 July 1959 at Stirling and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Fry notebooks and manuscripts (South Australian Museum)
  • N. B. Tindale manuscripts (South Australian Museum)
  • Fry papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • file re appointment of Northern Territory medical anthropologist, CRS A1, 1935/4434 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Fry, Henry Kenneth (1886–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 June 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

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