Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walter Edmund Roth (1861–1933)

by Barrie Reynolds

This article was published:

Walter Edmund Roth (1861-1933), physician, anthropologist and protector of Aborigines, was born on 2 April 1861 in London, sixth child of Mathias Roth, physician (a naturalized Hungarian refugee), and his English wife Anna Maria, née Collins. Walter was educated initially in France and Germany and, like his brothers Henry Ling and Reuter Emerich, at University College School, London. He studied biology at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of (Sir) Baldwin Spencer, and undertook medical training at St Thomas's Hospital, London. In 1886 he published The Elements in School Hygiene.

Roth came to Australia in late 1887 and in 1889 taught at Brisbane Grammar School and Brisbane Technical College before becoming the first director of the South Australian School of Mines and Industries (1889-90). In 1890 he was assistant master at Sydney Grammar School, then returned to London (1891) to complete his medical training (M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., 1892).

By mid-1892 Roth was serving as a locum for his brother Reuter in Sydney. He then practised medicine in north-west Queensland from 1894, being appointed government medical officer at Normanton (1896-97). He was interested in numismatics and published a series of articles for the Queenslander in 1895; his collection was eventually sold to the Australian Museum, Sydney.

His interest in Aboriginal anthropology was firmly established by 1894. He developed, however, essentially as an ethnographer, recording the cultures he observed rather than theorizing about them. His scientific training is evident in the care and accuracy of his observations. His distinguished monograph of 1897, Ethnological Studies Among North-West Central Queensland Aborigines, was the first of its kind in Australia and established his international reputation. In 1902 Roth was president of the anthropology section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1904 he was elected to the anthropological societies of Berlin and of Florence and was appointed Queensland correspondent for the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (honorary fellow, 1931). The Royal Society of New South Wales awarded him the (W. B.) Clarke medal in 1909.

In 1898 Roth was appointed as the first northern protector of Aboriginals under W. E. Parry-Okeden. Based at Cooktown, Roth travelled continually throughout the north. Part of his responsibilities was to record Aboriginal cultures. His main brief, however, was to prevent the exploitation of Aborigines, particularly in employment and marriage. Provided with a vessel, the Melbidir, he was also responsible for the regulation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in the bêche-de-mer industry.

Roth was concerned that the protective measures of the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897) had been open to abuse and he was closely associated with amending legislation in 1901. Possessed of a strong personality and administrative drive, Roth was effective as a protector but his initiatives brought him into conflict with politicians, settlers and the press in North Queensland. In 1904-06 he was chief protector (from Brisbane). In 1904 he also headed the Western Australian royal commission into the conditions of the Aborigines in the North-West. His report (1905) documented 'wrongs and injustices', 'cruelties and abuses', and made recommendations for better administration. He also contributed to the new legislation. Roth appears to have had good relations with indigenous and Chinese people wherever he worked. Having come under further political attack, he resigned in August 1906 on grounds of ill health and left Australia in December.

Roth published eighteen ethnographic bulletins, based on his official reports, on various aspects of Aboriginal culture. The first eight were published in Queensland Parliamentary Papers (1901-06), the rest in the Records of the Australian Museum (1907-10). He also published in other Australian and English journals. His publications today provide a valuable record of Aboriginal cultures and languages in north-east Australia.

From 1907 Roth was employed in British Guiana (Guyana) by the Imperial government as stipendiary magistrate, and sometime medical magistrate and district commissioner, and was largely responsible for drafting the Aboriginal Protection Ordinance (1910). He continued his anthropological work and made three extended field expeditions which provided the basis for various articles and the three monographs for which he received fresh scientific acclaim. He became interested in the history of Guiana and translated works by Dutch and German explorers, notably Richard Schomburgk. On his retirement in 1928 he became curator of the Georgetown Museum and government archivist. Appointed sole life member of the American Anthropological Association in 1932, Roth died in Georgetown on 5 April 1933.

His major collections of ethnological interest are deposited in the Australian and Queensland museums, the Museum of Mankind, London, the Gothenburg Ethnographical Museum, Sweden, the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, Georgetown.

Roth married Ada Toulmin (1887) and Edith Humpherson (1893?). Three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Biskup, Not Slaves Not Citizens (Brisb, 1973)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, So Much That is New (Melb, 1985)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1898, 4, p 502
  • Journal (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1902, p 257
  • Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1903 (2), p 477
  • Votes and Proceedings (Western Australia), 1905, 2S, 1 (5), p 13
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, Nov 1933 and for some publications
  • Brisbane Courier, 12 Mar 1902, 26 Sept 1903, 14 Dec 1906
  • Queenslander, 13 Apr 1933
  • EDU/A338 and HOM/J20 1906/10754 and HOM/A44 1903/3355 (Queensland State Archives)
  • biography of W. E. Roth by author in progress.

Citation details

Barrie Reynolds, 'Roth, Walter Edmund (1861–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 April, 1861
London, Middlesex, England


5 April, 1933 (aged 72)
Georgetown, Guyana

Cultural Heritage

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