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William Edward (Bill) Stanner (1905–1981)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published:

William Stanner, 1958

William Stanner, 1958

ANU Archives, 1885/​48679

William Edward Hanley Stanner (1905–1981), journalist, soldier and anthropologist, was born on 24 November 1905 at Watsons Bay, Sydney, second son of three children of English-born Andrew Edwin Stanner, cook, and his wife Mary Catherine, née Hanley, born in Queensland.  Bill was 3 years old when his father died.  He attended Parramatta High School but left, for financial reasons, after completing the Intermediate certificate.  Determined to go to university, he matriculated through private study while working as a bank clerk and then as a journalist with the Cumberland Argus.  A sub-editor for the Sydney Daily Guardian by 1927 and the chief sub-editor for the Sunday Sun in 1932, he gained experience in State politics via the parliamentary press gallery.

Chance had determined Stanner’s career in 1926 when he attended a Sydney Arts Society lecture by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown; the University of Sydney’s flamboyant and persuasive foundation professor of anthropology captivated him.  Entering the university in 1928, Stanner won a Frank Albert prize in anthropology in 1929 and 1930, and graduated (BA, 1932; MA, 1934) with first-class honours in anthropology and second-class honours in economics.

In 1932 Stanner secured an Australian National Research Council grant, assisted by (Sir) Raymond Firth, Radcliffe-Brown’s temporary successor.  During seven rigorous months in Aboriginal communities on the Daly River, Northern Territory, Stanner documented details of traditional life and cultural contact—fieldwork that influenced his future anthropological focus.  His master’s thesis, supervised by A. P. Elkin, demonstrated his capabilities in analysing traditional culture, documenting historical change and applying anthropology to current problems; he graduated with first-class honours.

Granted a one-year fellowship from the ANRC, in April 1934 Stanner drove to Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, in a second-hand Chevrolet utility he called 'the butter-cart'.  His constructive report on the social and economic impact of gold-mining on the Warumungu was ignored, until published in 1980.  During the 1934-35 wet season he revisited the Daly River, accompanying Catholic missionaries who established the Port Keats (later Wadeye) mission.  He took various jobs in Sydney to earn his passage to England, where he hoped to complete further research at the University of Oxford, under Radcliffe-Brown.  In the office of Premier (Sir) Bertram Stevens he wrote speeches and forged a friendship with a fellow staffer, W. C. Wentworth.  Stanner lectured part time at the university and was the news editor at the World under G. W. 'George' Warnecke.

Oxford in 1936 offered few prospects for academic employment.  With Radcliffe-Brown’s endorsement Stanner enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London (Ph.D., 1938), under the tutelage of Bronislaw Malinowski.  His doctoral dissertation analysed ceremonial exchange and economic transformation among the Daly River communities.  He judged Malinowski to be a less inspiring taskmaster than Radcliffe-Brown, but was able to associate with future luminaries and attend stimulating seminars.

As a student Stanner found part-time work as a research officer for Firth and was a sub-editor and leader-writer for The Times.  Stanner was appointed private secretary to the Federal treasurer, R. G. (Baron) Casey, during the 1937 Imperial Conference, which was dominated by defence issues.  That year he was a rapporteur with the Australian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva.

Stanner boldly raised Indigenous issues.  In the Illustrated London News (24 October 1936) and The Times (25 November 1937), he publicly criticised the Australian government’s Aboriginal policy.  His blunt address to the Royal Anthropological Institute on the exploitation of Aborigines influenced policy on applied anthropology, and he drafted a memorandum for submission to the Australian government.

Following Stanner’s graduation, the dearth of Australian university vacancies led Radcliffe-Brown to obtain for him a research post in Kenya.  Within seven months he had completed a report on the East Kenyan Kitui Kamba people.  This project was curtailed when the outbreak of World War II prompted Stanner’s rapid return to Australia.  Not immediately required for military service, he spent months delivering popular University of Sydney extension lectures and overseas broadcasts for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

In 1940-41 Stanner served on the personal staffs of successive ministers for the army, (Sir) Percy Spender and F. M. Forde, and while thus employed wrote a perceptive report on Eastern Command defences.  Following Japan’s entry into the war, Stanner’s knowledge of the Northern Territory interested the military.  He proposed the formation of a bush commando unit.  On 15 May 1942 he was appointed as a temporary major, Citizen Military Forces (Australian Imperial Force from August), and in June was placed in command of the North Australia Observer Unit ('the Nackeroos').  General Sir Thomas Blamey told him that he held 'the most interesting job in the AIF'.

Stanner retained proud command until October 1943, when he was transferred to the Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs), Melbourne, headed by Alfred Conlon.  Although appointed an assistant-director and promoted in December to temporary (later substantive) lieutenant colonel, he was unhappy in the post.  In April 1944 he was attached to the Australian Army Staff in London.  He advised Blamey during the prime ministers’ conference that year and reported on British post-hostilities planning and civil affairs organisation.  From February 1945 he attended the United States Army’s School of Military Government at Charlottesville, Virginia, but was recalled next month to join the British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit, with which he served in North Borneo in July-December.  He was demobilised in January 1946 in Australia.

Temporarily attached to the Department of External Affairs, Stanner drafted plans for the proposed South Pacific Commission, on which he was later an Australian representative (1953-56).  He visited the Territory of Papua-New Guinea, Fiji and Western Samoa.  Voyaging to London, he completed by September 1947 a preliminary report on the postwar reconstruction of the South Pacific islands for the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Institute of Pacific Relations.  This account formed the basis of his book, The South Seas in Transition (1953).  Foundation director (1947-49) of the East African Institute of Social and Economic Research, Makerere College, Uganda, he developed research programs for the governments of Uganda and Tanganyika (Tanzania).  Although frustrated by bureaucratic resistance, he extended his research on the Kitui Kamba and wrote an unpublished 347-page manuscript.

With the establishment of the Australian National University, Stanner was appointed, in September 1949, reader in comparative social institutions in the department of anthropology and sociology, Research School of Pacific Studies.  In 1964 he became professor of anthropology and next year head of department.  He was a foundation fellow (1953-55) of University House, where he resided, and a member (1965-68) of the ANU council.

In 1952 Stanner had renewed his fieldwork with the Murrinh-patha at Port Keats.  Concentrating on religion, ritual and the complexities of social change, Stanner also developed interests unusual among contemporary anthropologists.  At the Yarar rock shelter he conducted extensive archaeological excavations in 1957, and he visited remote rock-art sanctuaries with Indigenous elders.  In 1958-59 he encouraged his informant Nym Bandak to record stories on large sheets of masonite.  So inspired, Bandak developed a distinctive bark-painting style, and motifs that were among the first traditional paintings to be widely exhibited.  Stanner was one of the first non-Indigenous persons to stimulate Aboriginal artistic expression and explicate it to the general public.  His final Port Keats visit was in 1978, by which time 'doctor Stanner' had been transformed into a venerated elder of the Murrinh-patha.

Wentworth had become a Federal parliamentarian and in 1959 he urged the establishment of an Australian institute of Aboriginal studies.  Stanner was a central figure in negotiating with government and the ANU, where Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies thought to base it.  Stanner convened and chaired the landmark 1961 conference that surveyed the state of Aboriginal studies and recommended the institute’s creation.  He was foundation executive officer (1961-62) of the interim council, which met to clarify its functions and inter-institutional relationships; affiliation with the ANU was rejected in favour of statutory independence.

Stanner, however, found his duties unrewarding.  Selflessly hoping to promote Aboriginal research, he resented some personal attacks from State-based anthropologists, who feared Federal grant controls and who opposed the establishment of a research institute in Canberra.  When Stanner realised that his centralist model of staffing and research would fail, frustration and ill health led to his withdrawal early in 1962.  Although avoiding direct involvement, he was a firm supporter from 1964 when the Australian Institute of Aboriginal (and Torres Strait Islander) Studies was established.  On 10 September 1962 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he had married Patricia Ann Williams, an officer in the Department of External Affairs.

Stanner will be remembered as an interpreter of Aboriginal religion.  He produced, between 1959 and 1967, densely written commentaries that require concentration to comprehend the spirituality of Murrinh-patha society.  His series of articles from Oceania was published as On Aboriginal Religion (1963).  He demanded greater precision in comparative analysis, because he believed that the anthropological study of religion was 'still overwhelmingly one for an empirical approach'.  During a period of changing anthropological paradigms, he sought to escape the restrictions of functionalist anthropology and to formulate (unpublished) a fresh theoretical direction.  Although influenced intellectually by Radcliffe-Brown and Émile Durkheim, he humanised and individualised Aboriginal societies by emphasising historical change and concepts of ritual value and transaction.

In a 1965 Canberra Times article Stanner advocated a Gallery of Southern Man.  Following the 1967 referendum, which empowered the Federal government to legislate on Aboriginal matters, he was appointed a member of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, set up by Prime Minister Harold Holt.  H. C. Coombs chaired the triumvirate and Barrie Dexter was the director.  From 1967 until its abolition in 1976, Stanner devoted half his time to the council’s affairs.  The pessimism that prevailed following Holt’s death prompted Stanner’s wry public comment in 1972 that 'bureaucracy can always find excellent reasons for putting restraints on the growth of a new frame of mind'.  He had retired from the ANU on 31 December 1970 and his dedicated service to the council cost him writing opportunities during his later years.  In 1968-71 he gave expert advice to the Yirrkala people in the Gove (Northern Territory) land rights case.  As a representative on the 1975 planning committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, during the inquiry for the proposed national museum, he contributed substantially to concepts of Aboriginal Australia; he was a foundation member (1979) of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.

Stanner’s frequently republished 1968 Boyer lectures, 'After the Dreaming'—in which he coined the phrase the 'great Australian silence'—were a clarion call, proclaiming the humanity, forlorn history and research needs of Aboriginal Australians.  He had said all this in a 1958 Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science lecture, but few then listened.  The Boyer lectures elevated him as a public figure and mentor.

After his retirement Stanner worked from an office in the AIAS, where he sorted his voluminous papers, assisted by Diane Barwick; they included frank advice directed to government ministers and about thirty reports on the problems involved in securing recognition of Aboriginal concepts in Australian law.  Stanner stated the issues with great dignity and implicit outrage.

In 1979 Stanner published White Man Got No Dreaming—an eloquent exposition of Dreaming understanding—that included the powerful 'it was, and is, everywhen'.  He urged White Australians to overcome their racial prejudices and to accept Indigenous people.  His perceptive memoir on Durmugan—'the most characterful Aboriginal I have known'—developed these attitudes at an individual level.

Stanner’s multi-dimensional involvement in Aboriginal life was underrated by his generation, partly because some colleagues considered him aloof.  During the Vietnam War his reserved manner disquieted many contemporaries.  Ignorant of his pre-war radicalism and his Aboriginal advocacy, they found his formal dress and speech, and his clipped moustache, redolent of unpopular connections with senior military and political figures.  In the company of close friends he was a sensitive and entertaining raconteur with a sardonic wit, and he was a willing counsel.  Awarded the ANZAAS Mueller medal (1971) and the Cilento medal (1972), that year he was appointed CMG and received an honorary doctorate of letters from the ANU.

During his final five years Stanner suffered from debilitating Parkinson’s disease.  Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 8 October 1981 in Canberra and was cremated.  The Stanner Prize for Aboriginal Studies, Stanner Reading Room (AIATSIS), W. E. H. Stanner Building, ANU, and Stanner Street, Bonner, ACT, commemorate him.  He was named in the Bicentennial 'Heritage 200' list of significant Australians.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (1963)
  • D. Barwick et al (eds), Metaphors of Interpretation (1985)
  • R. and H. Walker, Curtin’s Cowboys (1986)
  • M. Hinkson and J. Beckett (eds), An Appreciation of Difference (2008)
  • Defence Force Journal, no 14, January-February 1979, p 15
  • Newsletter (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies), no 17, March 1982, p 45
  • Oceania, vol 52, no 4, 1982, p 271
  • Canberra Anthropology, vol 9, no 2, 1986, p 26
  • B883, item VX89030 (National Archives of Australia)
  • W. Stanner papers (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Stanner, William Edward (Bill) (1905–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Stanner, 1958

William Stanner, 1958

ANU Archives, 1885/​48679

Life Summary [details]


24 November, 1905
Watsons Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


8 October, 1981 (aged 75)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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