Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Alfred Cort Haddon (1855–1940)

by Steve Mullins

This article was published:

Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940), anthropologist and academic, was born on 24 May 1855 at Finsbury, Middlesex, England, second child of John Haddon, printer, merchant and Baptist deacon, and his wife Caroline, née Waterman, the author of several books of salutary children's tales. As changing economic circumstances caused his parents to shift about London, Alfred's early schooling was patchy, with time spent at the City of London Middle Class School and at the Nonconformist Mill Hill School. He became a keen amateur naturalist and, on entering the family business, pursued this interest by attending evening-classes in anatomy and zoology at King's College, and in geology at Birkbeck College, London. Alfred had little interest in printing, beyond what it offered the natural scientist—the materials and drafting skills to record his specimens and dissections. Eventually a tutor was employed to prepare him for his university entrance examinations. In 1875 Haddon entered Christ's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1879; M.A., 1882), to read the new natural science tripos, at which he excelled, especially in zoology and comparative anatomy. After graduating, he spent six months at the university's zoological station at Naples, Italy.

On his return to Cambridge, Haddon was made curator of the Zoological Museum. A few months later he was appointed a demonstrator in comparative anatomy at the university. In 1880 he accepted the chair of zoology at the Royal College of Science, Dublin. On 21 September 1881 at the Bunyan Meetinghouse, Bedford, England, he married Fanny Elizabeth Rose. In Dublin he focussed on marine zoology. Despite being involved in scientifically important, deep-sea dredging expeditions off the south-west Irish coast, and the success of his publications—especially his major taxonomic revision of British sea anemones—he was dissatisfied. He applied for positions elsewhere, among them the foundation chair of biology at the University of Melbourne (which ultimately went to (Sir) Walter Baldwin Spencer), and began to plan an expedition to further Charles Darwin's The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842). T. H. Huxley, the patron who had helped to secure Haddon's Dublin post, suggested that he go to Torres Strait. The choice triggered an abiding intellectual interest in the area and led ultimately to his conversion to anthropology.

In August 1888 Haddon arrived in Torres Strait. He had always intended doing some ethnographic work there, but collected with such zeal that, on his return to Dublin, he was able to publish a number of papers, the most impressive of which ran to almost 150 pages. These brought him to the notice of Britain's anthropological luminaries. After consultation with Huxley, and without relinquishing his Dublin chair, he returned to Cambridge in 1893 to study anthropology. In 1895 he was appointed lecturer in physical anthropology and in 1897 he obtained his D.Sc. During these years Haddon also planned another expedition to the Strait. This time he took with him a team that included C. S. Myers, W. H. R. Rivers, S. H. Ray, William McDougall, and C. G. Seligman. The expedition, which lasted for seven months in 1898, broke new ground in almost every aspect of its work. Rivers pioneered the use of genealogy to elucidate social systems, ceremonies were reconstructed, informants were cross-checked, speech and songs were recorded on wax-cylinders, and Haddon made some of the earliest ethnographic films. The result was a rigorous and sophisticated regional ethnography, the bulk of which Haddon edited and published in six volumes between 1901 and 1935: Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. It remains the seminal work in Torres Strait studies.

In 1900 Haddon was appointed lecturer in ethnology at Cambridge and in the following year was made a fellow of Christ's College. He became reader in ethnology in 1909. Although he never made a clear break with the evolutionary paradigm that dominated nineteenth-century anthropology, his Torres Strait work was largely empirical, with a methodology grounded in zoology. His dedication to intensive field-work distinguished him from the earlier generation of anthropologists, and he had a profound, though often unacknowledged, influence on the development of British anthropology. Haddon's scholarly output was prodigious, and included The Study of Man (London, 1895), Head-Hunters, Black, White and Brown (1901) and History of Anthropology (1910), yet he is best remembered for his Torres Strait publications, and perhaps for Canoes of Oceania (Honolulu, 1936-38) with James Hornell. Haddon returned to Torres Strait only once, in 1914. He resigned his readership in 1926, but continued to write until his death. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died on 20 April 1940 at his home in Cranmer Road, Cambridge.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Quiggin, Haddon, the Head Hunter (Cambridge, Eng, 1942)
  • E. S. Fegan, Bibliography of A. C. Haddon 1855-1940 (Cambridge, 1978)
  • D. Moore, The Torres Strait Collections of A. C. Haddon (Cambridge, 1984)
  • Oceania, June 1940
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, July 1940
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 3, 1941
  • Journal of Australian Studies, 2, 1977
  • Canberra Anthropology, 5, no 2, 1982
  • History of the Human Sciences, 5, 1992
  • A. C. Haddon, Australian and Pacific papers (AJCP microfilms).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Steve Mullins, 'Haddon, Alfred Cort (1855–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 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

Life Summary [details]


24 May, 1855
London, Middlesex, England


20 April, 1940 (aged 84)
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.