The Personal Archives of A P Elkin (1891-1979) Professor of Anthropology Biographical Note
The Elkin items and series lists are in pdf format.
Adolphus Peter Elkin was born in West Maitland, New South Wales, on 27 March 1891, the second son of Reuben Israel Elkin, salesman, and his wife Wilhelmine Ellen nee Bower. The elder son, John, died six weeks after AP's birth and two years later the family moved to New Zealand, settling in Auckland for six years. In 1899 the Elkins returned to the Hunter Valley, settling in Singleton, but by November 1901 Elkin's parents had divorced. Elkin's mother died the next year and the twelve-year old boy was brought up by his maternal grandfather in Singleton. He received his primary schooling at Singleton, and then attended Maitland East Boys High School, matriculating in 1907 with passes in Trigonometry, French, Algebra, Geometry, and English.
Elkin became a junior bank officer at the Commercial Banking Company branch in Quirindi on a salary of fifty-five pounds plus a living-away-from-home allowance of twenty-five pounds. After 18 months he was transferred to the Uralla branch of the Bank, and then to Gilgandra. Elkin had had conventional religious upbringing and in all three of these towns he became organist at the local Anglican church. While in Uralla he joined the Church of England Men's Society, and it was here, in 1909, that he first came across Darwin's "The Origin of Species" . A sentence at the end of that work predicting that new light would be thrown on the origin of man, became the 'fons et origo' of Elkin's anthropological interests . Further transfers to Sydney and then, in 1911, Lismore, convinced Elkin that his future did not lie with the bank, and by February 1912 he had applied for, and been awarded, the Church of England's Stanton Scholarship, a scholarship to St. Paul's College at the University of Sydney for young men wishing to undertake Holy Orders .
Elkin enrolled in Latin, Geology, English, and Philosophy in first year and then specialised in Philosophy, graduating with first-class honours in Philosophy in 1915; his thesis was entitled "Australian National Consciousness". That same year he was ordained Deacon and sent to Christ Church Cathedral at Newcastle . In March 1916 Elkin was ordained as a priest, and late that year sent as priest to Gundy in the upper reaches of the Hunter River, but 18 months later he had to leave this post because of ill-health. He spent his recuperation at Bourke, where he had his first contact with the aborigines and began to take an interest in them. For a few months he served as priest at the parish of Gosford-Brisbane Waters on the coast north of Sydney and spent all his spare time rectifying his almost total ignorance about the original inhabitants of Australia. His next post was at Wallsend, in the Hunter Valley coal fields, where the duties involved in ministering to a complex parish meant he had less and less time to pursue his burgeoning anthropological interests. Towards the end of 1919 Elkin accepted the job of Vice-Warden of St. John's Theological College, Armidale, an academic teaching post . Here Elkin lectured on "evolution, man's genealogical tree, prehistoric man and human institutions" .
In 1921 Elkin began a Master's research degree at Sydney University, graduating in 1922 with first-class honours for his thesis "The Religion of Australian Aborigines" . In January of that year, at the Burwood (Sydney) Anglican Church, Elkin married Sarah Thompson, a nursing sister he had met while at Wallsend. Elkin had lost his job in Armidale in 1921 and, shortly after the couple returned from their honeymoon, he was again appointed to a church in the Hunter Valley, this time at the village of Wollombi. Later that year G. V. Portus, who had been a fellow-rector at Christ Church, offered him a part-time tutorship in the WEA program for 1923. Elkin offered 24 lectures on the "Evolution of Man and his Culture", and attendances of 14-23 ensured that the course was offered in the two subsequent years . In 1923 Elkin attended the Pan Pacific Science Congress, held in Australia for the first time at Melbourne and Sydney, and was able to make valuable contacts with overseas anthropologists, in particular Haddon and Perry. That same year Elkin's son Peter Kingsley was born, and two years later Elkin resigned from Wollombi and the family travelled to London, where he worked on a PhD at University College, London, on Aboriginal myth and ritual. While in London Elkin was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society . Elkin returned to Australia with his PhD in 1927, and immediately went to the Kimberleys on a year-long field trip, organised by Radcliffe-Brown, and funded by the Australian National Research Council (ANRC). On his return Elkin was appointed as Rector to St. James', Morpeth, a position he held until 1937. Elkin accepted this post on the condition that he be allowed to continue his field work; in 1930 he visited South Australia and continued the research he had begun in the Kimberleys on genealogies and kinship groups . A second child, named Maurice, was born to the Elkins in November 1929 .
In 1925, Sydney University had established a Chair of Anthropology, appointing A. R. Radcliffe-Brown as first Professor, but the future of the department was very uncertain and in mid-1931 Radcliffe-Brown resigned to take up a post in Chicago. The following year his replacement, Raymond Firth (Acting Professor), also resigned and went to a post at LSE. Elkin was appointed as lecturer-in-charge of the department for 1933, but when the Chair was advertised in the same year, he was unwilling to apply, despite support from both of his predecessors . However, after a discussion with the Registrar, W. A. Selle, he submitted a late application and was appointed as Professor of Anthropology from the beginning of 1934. From the original 1927 ANRC grant Radcliffe-Brown had been able to publish a journal, Oceania, under the ANRC's auspices, Elkin took over editorial responsibilities at the beginning of 1933 and remained editor until his death in 1979 . 1933 also saw the publication, as an Oceania monograph, of Elkin's first full-length work "Studies in Australian Totemism". The Commonwealth Government had only agreed to keep funding the department for a further five years from 1934, so Elkin retained his rectorship at Morpeth, arriving at the University on Monday morning and returning to Morpeth on Thursday evening .
As head of the Department from 1934 Elkin undertook much of the teaching himself, supervised MA students, acted as Director of the ANRC's Anthropological research programme and continued to edit Oceania. In addition he was asked to develop and initiate a training scheme for New Guinea Patrol Officers, a function later taken over by the Australian School of Pacific Administration. A second lecturer was appointed to the Department in 1936. After his appointment to the Chair Elkin extended his field work to New Guinea, Queensland, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory. Elkin stabilised the Department, ensured its survival in the University, and presided over significant increases in student numbers. He made Australia and New Guinea the focus of the Department's research activities and encouraged the study of Physical, Social and Cultural Anthropology, as well as fostering the development of linguistic studies,particularly in the area of Australian Aboriginal languages. With the Commonwealth's guarantee of ten more years of funding in 1937 Elkin was able to resign from his church position and concentrate on his anthropological activities . During this time Elkin's own primary research concern was to understand social and kinship groups, but he also carried out extensive research and publication in the areas of totemism, religion, and magic .
In 1937 he edited another Oceania Monograph, Studies in Australian Linguistics, and in 1940 Oceania reprinted a series of his articles on kinship in South Australia as a monograph. The war years were a lean period for anthropology in Australia but the Carnegie Corporation gave Elkin a grant which enabled him to undertake some field work and continue publishing Oceania . Another of Elkin's war-time activities was as head of Australian Mass Observation, in which post he tried to persuade the government of the value of propaganda. Under his editorship Oceania eventually became self-supporting and in 1955 he was able to persuade the University to take over responsibility for its publication . Following the war Elkin made field trips to the central highlands area of New Guinea (1946, 1949, 1956), and became more interested in Melanesia, but his main concern was still aboriginal society in the Kimberleys, Arnhem Land, and South Australia, and this remained the focus of his published works. In 1956 Elkin retired from the Chair but continued to edit Oceania and maintained his many other non-academic activities.
Elkin was Chairman of the Anthropological Committee of the ANRC from 1933 to 1948, and Chairman of the Council for the year 1954-55. In 1933 Elkin became President of the Association for the Protection of Native Races, a body which worked to better the living conditions of aborigines, a position he held until 1962. When the New South Wales government established the Aborigines Protection Board in 1939 Elkin was on the Committee; he was Vice-President from 1941 to 1968. Elkin was a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and its President. He was a Trustee of the Australian Museum from 1946-72, and its President from 1962-68. Elkin was a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) from 1937 until his death, and a Fellow and Trustee of the Australian Social Science Research Council from 1953. He was a Fellow of the University Senate from 1959 to 1969, and a member of the Council of International House from its inception in 1966.
In 1949 Elkin received the medal of the Royal Society for oustanding scientific endeavour, and in 1956 he was given the Royal Society of New South Wales' James Cook Medal. In 1957 ANZAAS awarded him its Mueller Medal. The Bishop Museum in Hawaii awarded him its first Herbert E. Gregory Medal in 1961. In 1966 he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) and in 1970 the University awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters.
Elkin died on 9 July 1979, aged 88, at a meeting of the Finance sub-Committee of International House. His wife and both his children survived him.
1. The bulk of the information in the first two paragraphs of this note is derived from T. Wise, "The Self-made Anthropologist: A life of A P Elkin", Sydney 1985, pp. 1-15.
2. A. P. Elkin, "Autobiographical Notes", International Social Science Journal, XXV (1973), 13.
3. Wise, p. 13.
4. All the preceeding information is taken from the Vice-Chancellor's Statement to the Academic Board, p. 1, Biographical File 862, University Archives.
5. Wise, pp. 22-3 (Gundy and Bourke); p. 27 (Gosford); pp. 28-9 (Wallsend); p. 31 (St. John's).
6. Elkin, Autobiographical Notes, p. 13.
7. Vice-Chancellor, p, 1.
8. Wise, p. 39.
9. Vice-Chancellor, p. 2.
10. R. M. Berndt & C. H. Berndt, "Obituary: Adolphus Peter Elkin, 1891 - 1979", Oceania 50 (1979), p. 82.
11. Wise, p. 91.
12. Berndt & Berndt, p. 84.
13. Berndt & Berndt, p. 84.
14. Vice-Chancellor, p. 3.
15. Berndt & berndt, p. 84.
16. Vice-Chancellor, p. 4.
17. Elkin, Autobiographical Notes, pp. 18-19.
18. Berndt & Berndt, p. 84