Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson (1901–1970)

by Howard Morphy

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson (1901-1970), by unknown photographer

Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson (1901-1970), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4516

Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson (1901-1970), anthropologist and zoologist, was born on 26 June 1901 at Brighton, Melbourne, second child of Harry Alexander Fergusson Thomson, a Scottish-born musician, and his wife Maybelle Alice, née Davies, who came from Wales. Donald had a childhood passion for natural history and went on forays to collect birds' eggs. Inspired by Sir Robert Scott, he dreamed of joining polar expeditions. The 'born adventurer' initially proceeded from Scotch College to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1925; D.Sc., 1934). While there, he asked Sir Baldwin Spencer to obtain him a place on (Sir) Hubert Wilkins's expedition to northern Australia. Persuaded to complete his degree first, he prepared himself for future field-work by learning photography. After graduating he was employed as a journalist on the Herald.

On 30 December 1925, in the memorial hall of his old school, Thomson married with Presbyterian forms Gladys Winifred Coleman; they were to have two sons. In 1927 he studied at the University of Sydney for a diploma in anthropology (1928). His teacher, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, supported his application to the Australian National Research Council for funds to conduct anthropological and zoological field-work on Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.

Granted £600 by the A.N.R.C., Thomson set out in April 1928. He covered thousands of miles on horseback, took many glass-plate negatives and collected zoological specimens and ethnographic objects. In January 1929 he returned to Melbourne. The A.N.R.C. awarded him a grant for a second expedition, but he became involved in a dispute with its treasurer Henry Chapman who refused to provide the funds until he handed over material he had previously gathered. Thomson surrendered his grant. Accompanied by his wife, he left for Queensland, determined to support himself by journalism. Chapman, who falsely insinuated dishonesty on Thomson's part, was later found to have embezzled council money. The episode made Thomson deeply suspicious of the A.N.R.C. and may have turned Sydney's academic establishment against him.

By the end of his first period of field-work he had lost the support of Radcliffe-Brown who felt that Thomson, despite his scientific background, was 'not whole-heartedly a scientist'. The judgement reflected Radcliffe-Brown's narrow, structural-functionalist conception of anthropology. Thomson had a broader view of the discipline, an interest in art and material culture, and scant concern for new developments in social theory.

Back in Melbourne in late 1929, Thomson joined the staff of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Research in Pathology and Medicine and worked on antivenenes. In 1932 he became a research fellow in the department of anatomy, University of Melbourne, which financed his last expedition (1932-33) to Cape York Peninsula. The publications resulting from his field-work included Birds of Cape York Peninsula (1935). He was to be attached to the university for most of the remainder of his career, as a research fellow (1932-37 and 1945-53), senior research fellow (1953-64) and professor of anthropology (1964-68).

Thomson supported Aboriginal rights. Appalled by conditions on William MacKenzie's Presbyterian mission at Aurukun, Queensland, he offered to address Church leaders behind closed doors, but they refused him a hearing. This experience may have coloured his attitude to missionaries in general. In 1932-33 Aborigines killed five Japanese and three Europeans near Caledon Bay and Blue Mud Bay, Northern Territory. The news led to talk of a punitive expedition. Thomson volunteered to investigate the conditions and concerns of the Aboriginal people, and to make policy recommendations. He received considerable support in Melbourne from academics and the press, particularly the Herald. His proposal was eventually accepted. In March 1935 he left for eastern Arnhem Land as a representative of the Commonwealth government.

Apart from a break in January-June 1936, Thomson remained in Arnhem Land until September 1937, acting as an investigator, an advocate and a mediator. He facilitated the establishment of peaceful relations between the Yolngu people and the Commonwealth government, and befriended Wonggu, leader of the Djapu clan from the Caledon Bay region. Thomson organized the release of Mau, Natjelma and Narkaya, three of Wonggu's sons who had been imprisoned in Darwin for the killing of the Japanese, and personally returned them to their homeland in 1936. He sought to protect the integrity and inviolability of the Arnhem Land reserve by excluding non-Aboriginal people, and he recommended that European administrators should have a detailed understanding of the laws and practices of Aboriginal society.

In early 1938 Thomson sailed for England to take up a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship at Christ's College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1950). His research was supervised by A. C. Haddon, one of the founders of evolutionary anthropology. Although there was never a trace of evolutionism in Thomson's writings, his association with Haddon may have further distanced him from the Radcliffe-Brown school. The Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland awarded him the Wellcome medal (1939) for his pioneering work in applied anthropology.

Thomson returned to Australia when World War II began. On 8 January 1940 he was commissioned flying officer, Royal Australian Air Force. Attached to No.11 Squadron, Port Moresby, as an intelligence officer, he helped to establish the coastwatching system in the Solomon Islands. By April 1941 he was serving at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne. Seconded to the Australian Military Forces in June, he was sent to the Northern Territory to raise and command the 7th Military District's Special Reconnaissance Unit. In 1942-43 Squadron Leader Thomson and his men, most of them Aborigines, patrolled the coast of Arnhem Land and trained to fight as guerrillas in the event of a Japanese invasion. He left the unit in mid-1943. As a temporary wing commander, he had charge of two expeditions which explored the south-eastern part of Japanese-occupied Netherlands New Guinea. Natives attacked his party during the second journey and he was severely wounded. For his leadership of these operations he was appointed O.B.E. (1945). His R.A.A.F. appointment was terminated on medical grounds on 13 October 1944.

After the war Thomson was offered a lectureship at Cambridge, but he remained in Melbourne where he published his major work, Economic Structure and the Ceremonial Exchange Cycle in Arnhem Land (1949). He won the patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1951 and the Rivers memorial medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1952. It was, however, a difficult time for him. In 1944 he had been diagnosed as suffering from diabetes, and his health never fully recovered from the hardships of his field-work and war service. His long absences from home strained his marriage; he and Gladys were to be divorced in 1954. A fire in 1946 at premises controlled by the Department of Information destroyed the 20,000 ft (6096 m) of film he had shot in Arnhem Land. He regarded those films as perhaps the best record he had made of Aboriginal life.

In 1946-47 Thomson published a series of articles in the Herald on justice for the Aborigines. The articles brought into the open his underlying disagreement with Professor Adolphus Elkin, who had greater sympathy with the policy of assimilation. Thomson campaigned vigorously in 1947 against the establishment of a rocket range at Woomera, South Australia, because of the threat it posed to desert-dwelling Aborigines. Again, he was opposed by Elkin. Serving on the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board from 1957, Thomson found that little notice was taken of his advice. He resigned in frustration in 1967.

At the Presbyterian Church, Warragul, on 7 May 1955 Thomson had married Dorita Maria McColl, a 25-year-old technical assistant. Between 1957 and 1965 he mounted three expeditions to study the Pintupi people of the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts. In this research he concentrated on the Aborigines' hunting and gathering practices; the results were less significant than his earlier work on Cape York Peninsula and in Arnhem Land. Bindibu Country (1975) provided an account of two of his trips. Thomson became increasingly removed from academic life and from mainstream developments in anthropology. A number of circumstances contributed to his isolation: the fact that he was the only anthropologist at the University of Melbourne, Elkin's constant and tiring opposition to his work and to the policies he advocated, and his tendency to work best alone.

On Thomson's retirement from the university in 1968, members of the professorial board praised him as 'a man of action and a distinguished scholar'. They thought that his work for Aborigines and his controversial personality merited his being described as 'Australia's Lawrence of Arabia'. Yet in many respects his life was tragic. He failed to gain the recognition as a scientist that he felt he deserved, and he failed to alter government policy towards Aboriginal people. Ironically, near the end of his life, events seemed to be catching up with him. Anthropologists were shifting towards the kinds of research that he had carried out and the movement to grant land rights to Aborigines was strengthening. But, by that time, Thomson had long been disillusioned with politicians and become alienated from most of his anthropological colleagues. He died of coronary artery sclerosis on 12 May 1970 at his Eltham farm and was cremated; his wife and their son and three daughters survived him, as did the sons of his first marriage.

The destruction of Thomson's films had made him determined to keep personal control of the other material he had acquired through his field-work. It was only after his death that the full richness of his achievement became apparent. The collection of more than 7000 artefacts, comprehensive in its scope and scrupulously described, together with 11,000 photographs documenting every aspect of Aboriginal daily and ritual life, enables the viewer to recapture the Aboriginal world of Cape York and Arnhem Land in the 1930s and 1940s. Thomson also left about 7500 pages of field-notes, 25,000 ft (7620 m) of film from later expeditions, and 2500 natural science specimens.

He had recorded in immense detail the cultural dimensions of Aboriginal society—its material culture, art, ceremonial performances, burial practices, and hunting-and-gathering economy. Moreover, Thomson wrote powerful evocations of the aesthetics of Arnhem Land life, and was sensitive to the poetics of Yolngu art and language. A meticulous ethnographer, he used his command of the language to identify central concepts that revealed the workings of Yolngu society from within, concepts such as 'marr' or ancestral power.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Peterson, 'Donald Thomson: A Biographical Sketch', in N. Peterson (compiler), Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land (Melb, 1983)
  • D. Carment (et al), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (Darwin, 1990)
  • 'The Big Picture: Thomson of Arnhem Land', ABC TV, 29 June 2000 (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • Donald Thomson collection (Museum Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Howard Morphy, 'Thomson, Donald Finlay Fergusson (1901–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson (1901-1970), by unknown photographer

Donald Finlay Fergusson Thomson (1901-1970), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4516

Life Summary [details]


26 June, 1901
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 May, 1970 (aged 68)
Eltham, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.