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Norman James Brian Plomley (1912–1994)

by Margaret Glover

This article was published:

Norman James Brian Plomley (1912—1994), biophysicist, anatomist, museum director, and historian, was born on 6 November 1912 at Woollahra, Sydney, elder son of locally born parents Morris James Plomley, medical practitioner, and his wife Winifred Julia, née Pickburn. Brian was educated at Barker College, Hornsby, and the University of Sydney (BSc, 1935) where he won the Eleanor Chase memorial prize in zoology (1931). He then spent two years in England gaining research experience at Imperial College, London, and the Molteno Institute, University of Cambridge.

When visiting Launceston, Tasmania, in 1938, Plomley became temporary assistant curator at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) and, after the death of H. H. Scott, was briefly its acting director. He also served as secretary (1938, 1946—49) of the northern branch of the Royal Society of Tasmania (RST), in which capacity he called for the preservation of Tasmania’s historical records. From 1939 to 1943 he was a research student in the physics department at the University of Tasmania, and would be awarded a master of science degree in 1947 for his thesis on the effects of ultraviolet radiation on a species of fungus. During World War II he was secretary of the technical committee on fuels, secretary and accountant to the Hobart annex of the optical munitions panel, and in charge of the Commonwealth Food Control’s Hobart laboratory. On 2 September 1944 at St Raphael’s Anglican church, Fern Tree, he married Mary Edney Moore (d. 1960), an optical munitions worker; the couple separated in 1957.

In 1946 Plomley was appointed director of the QVMAG. Here he was quick to promote interest in the Aboriginal people of Tasmania by exhibiting the R. W. Legge collection, comprising mainly Indigenous artefacts, and presenting talks to community groups. In June 1948 he again made an appeal for the preservation of the State’s history, noting that what had been written, mostly by visitors, was ‘scrappy and incomplete’ (Examiner 1948, 3). At the same time he fostered scientific research, appointing a geologist and an anthropologist to the museum staff. He noted that ‘no real attempt had been made to trace the true habits of the Tasmanian aborigine’ (Examiner 1949, 7), and that the anthropologist would contribute to a project assessing the information currently available.

Plomley left Launceston in April 1950 to take up a position as senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of Sydney. Eleven years later he moved to a similar position at the University of New South Wales. From the late 1950s he had used his sabbatical leave and a Nuffield Foundation grant (1964) to survey French manuscripts and collections of Tasmanian Indigenous material in European institutions. In 1965 he went to University College, London, becoming a senior lecturer and tutor in anatomy and embryology. On 1 October 1971 at the Register Office, Hendon, London, he married Swaran Marwah, a university lecturer; this marriage would also end in divorce. By 1973 he had returned to Australia. His last academic position was senior associate in Aboriginal and Oceanic ethnology at the history department, University of Melbourne. In 1977 he moved back to Launceston.

When in Sydney, Plomley began transcribing George Augustus Robinson’s journal accounts of his early work with Tasmanian Aboriginal people. The resulting book, Friendly Mission (1966), was a seminal text, notable for the meticulous research which became a distinguishing characteristic of Plomley’s writing. Certainly he gave little credence to oral history. Lyndall Ryan, one of those in the next generation of historians who was inspired by Plomley’s work, noted that ‘as a physical scientist and imbued with the beliefs of scientific racism’ he found scant evidence of massacres in official sources of the Black War, so did not believe they were widespread (Ryan 2010, 44).

In 1987 Plomley published Weep in Silence, incorporating Robinson’s later journals written when he was in charge of the Flinders Island Aboriginal settlement. In the intervening period Plomley had produced A Word-List of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages, an annotated bibliography of sources, and a history of the Baudin expedition (1802). Other major publications dealt with the adventurer Jorgen Jorgenson and the D’Entrecasteaux expedition (1792—93), while his many shorter writings ranged in scope from the sealers of Bass Strait to cicatrices as tribal indicators.

While Plomley’s works were considered to have ‘reawakened interest in the study of Tasmanian Aboriginal history’ (Valentine 2006), he was never involved in the political and social activities of the descendants of Aboriginal people. By nature somewhat retiring, he was, however, quick to take offence and equally quick to offend. He was appointed AM in 1979 for services to historical research and awarded the Clive Lord Memorial medal of the RST in 1983. He died in Launceston on 8 April 1994 and was survived by his only child, a daughter of the first marriage, from whom he was estranged.

In 1979 Plomley had established the Tasmanian Aboriginal Research Trust, based at the State Library of Tasmania. Insurmountable personal differences with board members resulted in the dissolution of the trust by an Act of Parliament in 1984. Reconstituted as the Plomley Foundation and administered by the QVMAG, it continued to support projects on the State’s natural and cultural heritage, with a particular interest in Indigenous matters.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Examiner (Launceston). ‘State History Lost.’ 17 June 1948, 3
  • Examiner (Launceston). ‘Tasmanian Aborigine Was Negroid Type.’ 12 July 1949, 7
  • Glover, Margaret. ‘Norman James Brian Plomley, 1912–1994.’ Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association 41, no. 2 (June 1994): 125–26
  • Plomley, N. J. B. Several Generations. Sydney: Wentworth Books, 1971
  • Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. CHS53, Plomley Collection
  • Roe, Michael. ‘Brian Plomley a Very Rare Scholar.’ Mercury (Hobart), 18 April 1994, 12
  • Ryan, Lyndall. ‘“Hard Evidence”: The Debate about Massacre in the Black War in Tasmania.’ In Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory, and Indigenous Australia, edited by Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys, and John Docker, 39–50. Canberra: Aboriginal History and ANU E-Press, 2010
  • Stevenson, Martin. ‘Noted State Author Dies Aged 81.’ Examiner (Launceston), 9 April 1994, 10
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Valentine, Barbara. ‘Norman James Brian Plomley.’ In The Companion to Tasmanian History, edited by Alison Alexander. Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, University of Tasmania, 2006. Accessed 14 October 2016. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Citation details

Margaret Glover, 'Plomley, Norman James Brian (1912–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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