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Elsie McCarthy (1909–1985)

by Michael Davis

This article was published online in 2022

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This is a shared entry with Frederick David McCarthy

Frederick David McCarthy (1905-1997) and Elsie McCarthy (1909-1985), anthropologists and museum curators, were husband and wife. Fred was born on 13 August 1905 at Petersham, Sydney, elder twin and second of four children of Charles Henry McCarthy, tram driver, and his wife Jane, née Fyfe, both New South Wales born. The family moved to Leichhardt soon after his birth. He was educated locally, finishing his tuition at Annandale Junior Technical School. As a young man he was keen on rowing, swimming, and bushwalking.

In 1920 McCarthy began work at the Australian Museum as assistant librarian. Developing an interest in anthropology, he and a colleague excavated a rock shelter at Burrill Lake on the State’s south coast in 1930. The location was also the subject of his first published paper, which appeared in the Australian Museum Magazine in the following year. In 1932 he was promoted to scientific cadet and assigned to assist W. W. Thorpe, curator of anthropology. Following Thorpe’s death in September, Elsie Bramell was appointed scientific assistant in February 1933. She briefly had seniority over McCarthy who was promoted to the same level in the next year.

Elsie had been born on 14 August 1909 at Port Moresby, Papua, elder child of English-born Bertram William Bramell, resident magistrate and later commissioner for native affairs, and his Sydney-born wife Ada Blanche, née Skelly. Sent to Australia for her education, she attended Mount St Mary’s Dominican Convent, Moss Vale, and St George Girls’ High School (captain 1927), Sydney. She was awarded a public exhibition at the University of Sydney (BA, 1931; DipEd, 1932; MA, 1935) where she was joint winner (1930) of the Frank Albert prize in anthropology.

Overseen by the museum’s director Charles Anderson, Bramell and McCarthy were the sole employees working with the anthropological and numismatic collections. Their tasks were wide-ranging, including developing exhibitions, cataloguing collections, answering public enquiries, classifying and analysing stone tools, conducting archaeological excavations, and carrying out anthropological and ethnographic studies. At the same time they enrolled for further study at the university: McCarthy undertook a diploma in anthropology (1935), while Bramell completed her master’s thesis. Together they conducted photographic recordings and surveys, and artefact collection at sites in the greater Sydney region, including excavations at Emu Cave (Lapstone Creek Rock Shelter). Much of this work was carried out on weekends and with limited or no funding from the museum. In 1938 McCarthy published his first monograph, the popular museum publication Australian Aboriginal Decorative Art.

Concerned at the destruction of sites they witnessed in the field, the couple began advocating for the protection of Aboriginal heritage, although legislation was not introduced in New South Wales until 1977. In their campaign they sought support from professional organisations. At a 1937 meeting of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, for example, the ‘urgent necessity for the protection of Aboriginal relics’ was proclaimed and the ‘plea for protective legislation received strong support’ (Ramsden and Bramell 1937, 262). The couple, with other members of the society, began recording details of rock engravings and paintings that were in danger from vandals and the pressures of expanding settlement.

To garner further support, McCarthy published an article in the journal Mankind, which was republished as ‘Australia’s Story in Prehistoric and Aboriginal Relics’ in the Sydney Mail newspaper in 1938. A year later Bramell wrote that ‘continued destruction’ was of ‘grave concern to all interested in the aboriginal Australians and their achievements as craftsmen and artists.’ She argued that the preservation of this ‘national property’ was ‘the responsibility of each and every one of us’ (1939, 1). The historian Billy Griffiths would dub the pair ‘early champions of Aboriginal heritage,’ who called for Aboriginal sites to be protected as ‘national monuments,’ recognising their ‘natural and scientific importance’ (2018, 153).

On 28 March 1941 McCarthy and Bramell married at St John’s Church of England, Darlinghurst. Public Service Board regulations restricting married couples being employed by the State forced Elsie to resign from the museum. She nevertheless continued to be widely involved in debates and discussions in anthropology and archaeology. She spoke in the museum’s Popular Science lecture series and presented talks on anthropological subjects on radio. A council member (1935–39) of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, she later served on the editorial committee (1940–46) of its journal. She contributed to publications including the Australian Museum Magazine, Records of the Australian Museum, the Australian Journal of Science, and the Australian Journal of Anthropology. Her writings encompassed book reviews and articles, including a brief account of the career of Sir Hubert Murray, colonial administrator of Papua.

Elsie was one of the few professional women engaged in the fledgling discipline of archaeology. She is perhaps best known for her contribution to formulating a classification system for stone tools. In this work she and H. V. V. Noone had assisted McCarthy in the publication, The Stone Implements of Australia (1946), a seminal work on the classification and typology of Aboriginal stone technology. She remained involved in McCarthy’s work while raising their family. In an interview she recalled that on one occasion her husband had complained of walking twelve miles in the tropical heat while on an expedition, she added ‘and I was chasing three kids around’ (du Cros 1993, 243). The historical archaeologist Judy Birmingham later described her as ‘the textbook example of the archaeological glass ceiling for talented women’ (Ireland and Casey 2006, 7–8) who were forced to forgo their careers for marriage.

In July 1941 Fred was appointed as curator in charge of the anthropology and numismatics collections at the museum. Regretting Elsie’s departure, he recalled the ‘penalty’ of their marriage as having to ‘manage with a series of untrained general assistants’ (1984, 73). Continuing his fieldwork, he worked in many areas of Australia, including Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland; the Pilbara in north Western Australia; Cobar and Mootwingee (Mutawintji) in western New South Wales; as well as in eastern New South Wales. His views on culture sequence and chronologies in stone tools emerged from his many excavations. He had also worked outside Australia, including travelling to the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) in late 1937, where he excavated sites on Sulawesi. In January 1938 he visited Singapore to present a paper to the third congress of the Prehistorians of the Far East, on similar implements found in the Netherlands East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, and Indo-China. This visit gave him an opportunity to refine his ideas on diffusionism and comparative archaeology.

During 1948 he joined the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, a large multi-disciplinary venture led by the anthropologist Charles Mountford. McCarthy worked on several projects including studying string figures at Yirrkala and cave paintings on Groote and Chasm islands, as well as excavating cave floors and open middens with Frank Setzler. Also notable was his collaboration with the nutritionist Margaret McArthur on a ground-breaking study of the food quest in the Aboriginal economy.

Drawing on his accumulated research, McCarthy published Australian Aborigines: Their Life and Culture (1957). The volume would be judged by the archaeologist John Mulvaney to be ‘virtually the first general and well-illustrated account of the complexity of Aboriginal societies around the continent’ (1993, 22). During July-August 1958 McCarthy turned his attention to rock art sites at Port Hedland, Western Australia, funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. This work, and his extensive field studies in New South Wales, formed the basis for his 1958 monograph Australian Aboriginal Rock Art. Pursuing his interest in expressive culture, he travelled to Aurukun on the Cape York Peninsula in 1961, to study totemic clan dances. In 1967, continuing his work on stone technology, McCarthy completed a handbook on stone implements. His monographs published by the Australian Museum proved to be commercially successful with cumulative sales in excess of one hundred thousand copies.

In 1964 McCarthy had been appointed foundation principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (later the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) in Canberra. The new role gave him a platform to advocate for archaeology as a professional discipline, and for the collection, documentation, and preservation of Australian Indigenous cultural heritage. Intent on raising awareness of the work of the institute and recipients of its grants, he introduced a newsletter and later a publishing unit. Among other initiatives, he began a national register of Indigenous sites and provided financial assistance to establish a carbon dating laboratory at the Australian National University (ANU). He retired in 1971 and returned to Sydney.

McCarthy was active in several professional organisations, including as president of the Royal and the Anthropological societies of New South Wales. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of science (1980) from the ANU and appointed a fellow (1990) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Publishing prolifically during his career, he remained productive in retirement, including compiling the manuscript ‘Artists of Sandstone,’ a comprehensive account of Indigenous people of the Sydney region. In 1993 a section of the Australian Archaeological Association conference and a supplement of Records of the Australian Museum reflected on his legacy. Survived by his daughter and two sons, Fred died on 18 November 1997 at Mona Vale and was cremated. He was predeceased by Elsie who, following a long illness, had died on 14 May 1985 at St Leonards, and was cremated. A laboratory at the Northern Territory University in Darwin was named after her.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Attenbrow, Val. ‘Obituary, Frederick David McCarthy.’ Australian Archaeology, no. 46 (1998): 40–42
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. MS 3513, Papers of Frederick David McCarthy
  • Bowdler, Sandra, and Genevieve Clune. ‘That Shadowy Band: The Role of Women in the Development of Australian Archaeology.’ Australian Archaeology, no. 50 (June 2000): 27–35
  • Bramell, Elsie. ‘The Necessity for the Preservation of Aboriginal Relics.’ Australian Journal of Science 2, no. 1 (June 1939): 1–3
  • Davis, Michael. Writing Heritage: The Depiction of Indigenous Heritage in European-Australian Writings. Kew, Vic.: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007
  • du Cros, Hilary. ‘Female Skeletons in the Closet: An Historical Look at Women in Australian Archaeology.’ In Women in Archaeology: A Feminist Critique. Occasional Papers in Prehistory 23, edited by Hilary du Cros and Laurajane Smith, 239–44. Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 1993
  • Griffiths, Billy. Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia. Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2018
  • Ireland, Tracey, and Mary Casey, ‘Judy Birmingham in Conversation.’ Australasian Historical Archaeology 24, no. 1 (2006): 7–16
  • Khan, Kate. ‘Frederick David McCarthy: An Appreciation.’ Records of the Australian Museum, Supplement 17 (1993): 1–5
  • McCarthy, Frederick D. ‘A Coat of Paint.’ Australian Aboriginal Studies 2 (1984): 71–72
  • Mulvaney, Derek John. ‘Two Remarkable Parallel Careers.’ Australian Archaeology 10 (1980): 96–101
  • Mulvaney, D. J. ‘Sesqui-centenary to Bicentenary: Reflections on a Museologist.’ Records of the Australian Museum, Supplement 17 (1993): 17–24
  • Oakes, Leonie, Betty Meehan, and Lissant Bolton. ‘Elsie McCarthy (née Bramell). Obituary.’ Australian Archaeology, no. 21 (December 1985): 139–41
  • Ramsden, Eric, and Elsie Bramell. ‘Proceedings of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales.’ Oceania 8, no. 2 (1937): 262–64
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 3188, Papers of Frederick David McCarthy
  • Sullivan, Marjorie, Sally Brockwell, and Ann Webb, eds. Archaeology in the North: Proceedings of the 1993 Australian Archaeological Association Conference. Darwin: North Australia Research Unit, Australian National University, 1994

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Davis, 'McCarthy, Elsie (1909–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bramell, Elsie

14 August, 1909
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea


14 May, 1985 (aged 75)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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