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Phyllis Mary Kaberry (1910–1977)

by Christine Cheater

This article was published:

Phyllis Mary Kaberry (1910-1977), anthropologist, was born on 17 September 1910 at San Francisco, United States of America, eldest of three children of English-born parents Lewis Kaberry, architect, and his wife Hettie Emily, née Coggins. Lewis had expected to find work at San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. About 1913 the family moved to New Zealand, thence to Newcastle, New South Wales, and finally in 1914 to Sydney, settling at Manly. From an early age Phyllis proved intelligent and adventurous, spending her childhood exploring Middle Harbour in a boat she and her two younger brothers had fashioned from corrugated iron. She attended Fort Street Girls' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1933; M.A., 1935), winning the Wentworth medal in 1934 and gaining first-class honours for her master's thesis on 'Culture contact in Melanesia'. At university she and her comrade Margot Hentze joined Professor John Anderson's Freethought Society.

In 1934-35 Kaberry spent eighteen months (on grants) following the daily activities of Aborigines living along the Forrest and Lyne rivers in the Kimberley district of Western Australia; while in the area she made enduring friendships with (Dame) Mary and Elizabeth Durack. Kaberry's findings were published in Oceania (1934-36). From September 1936 she worked in Professor Bronislaw Malinowski's department at the London School of Economics (Ph.D., 1938). Her thesis, published as Aboriginal Woman (1939), strove to portray 'Aboriginal woman as she really is'—an integral part of Aboriginal culture, interesting in her own right. In a period when native women were generally depicted as either 'domesticated cows' or erotic objects her approach was rare.

With the support of an Australian National Research Council grant, Dr Kaberry carried out field-work (1939-40) in the Sepik district of the mandated Territory of New Guinea. World War II forced her to return to Sydney. She spent 1940-41 writing up field-reports—two of which were published in Oceania (1941-42)—and working for the university's department of anthropology as an honorary assistant-lecturer. While successively holding Sterling and Carnegie fellowships (1941-43) at Yale University, U.S.A., she gave lectures and edited The Dynamics of Culture Change (New Haven, 1945), a posthumous collection of Malinowski's unpublished papers. Back in England, she was a research associate (1943-44) at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Invited by the Colonial Social Science Research Council to investigate the cause of malnutrition in the British Cameroons, Kaberry arrived in West Africa in January 1945. The years (1945-46, 1947-48, 1958, 1960, 1963) she spent there were possibly the happiest of her career. The African women she met were not shy and liked to swap gossip with her. Her friendship with them led her to complain on their behalf about the conduct of neighbouring tribesmen whose cattle were destroying the women's farms. Although she later claimed to have done very little, she was credited with having driven the cattle from Nso land and became something of a legend among the women. They honoured her by making her a 'Queen Mother'. Of the many accolades that she received, this was the one she most prized. The results of her research were published in Women of the Grassfields (London, 1952).

In January 1949 Kaberry had joined the staff of University College, London, and was reader in anthropology from 1950 until September 1977. She was a council-member (1951-54, 1953-59, 1960-63) and vice-president (1965-68) of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and was awarded its Rivers (1957) and Wellcome (shared, 1959) medals. A pretty, vivacious woman, with shoulder-length brown hair which she usually wore tied in a bun, she loved music and English literature. In 1944 she took to Africa Shakespeare's plays, some poetry in compact editions, a recent translation of Jacob Burckhardt's Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Jane Austen's novels in omnibus form. She often sent poems inspired by her field-work experiences to her friends. Possessing a dry sense of humour, she liked to regale her male colleagues with the derogatory remarks African women made about their men and their lazy habits. Former students found her kind, helpful and comforting after other teachers had torn strips off them. Phyllis Kaberry died of acute alcohol poisoning by misadventure on 31 October 1977 in her Camden flat and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Ardener (ed), Persons and Powers of Women in Diverse Cultures (NY, 1992)
  • J. Marcus (ed), First in their Field (Melb, 1993)
  • Africa, 48, no 3, 1978, p 296
  • Oceania, 48, no 4, June 1978, p 301
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Dec 1944
  • Times (London), 18 Nov 1977
  • P. M. Kaberry, Australian field notes (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • Elkin papers, box 8 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christine Cheater, 'Kaberry, Phyllis Mary (1910–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 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]


17 September, 1910
San Francisco, California, United States of America


31 October, 1977 (aged 67)
London, Middlesex, England

Cultural Heritage

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