A.P. Elkin

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Elkin was a great and venerable Australian anthropologist. Born in New South Wales in 1891, three years before Baldwin Spencer made his first trip to the Northern Territory, he inherited and embraced a fine empirical tradition, strengthened it with his own labours, and passed it on to his students. He died on 9 July 1979.

Elkin began his working life as a country bank clerk. Off the job he read books on religion and human science and, at a local youth club in 1909, argued for the compatibility of Darwinism and Christianity. It was a position he never retreated from. In 1916 he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church and continued on occasion to preach from the pulpit long after he had become an anthropologist. At the same time he acknowledged that his interest in anthropology was inspired by the last page of The Origin of Species, and to the end he maintained a keen interest in human origins and evolution. The last book I heard him commend with enthusiasm was Kummer’s Primate Societies.

In 1922 Elkin wrote a thesis on ‘The Religion of Australian Aborigines’ for the degree of Master of Arts at Sydney University. The following year he met Haddon and Perry at a conference in Sydney, and in 1925 he enrolled as a Ph.D. student at University College London, where he worked mainly in association with Perry and Elliot Smith.

In 1927 he returned to Australia to begin a field survey in the Kimberley region under the aegis of Radcliffe-Brown, who had been appointed to the Sydney Chair in the previous year. In 1930 Elkin carried out a similar survey among Aborigines in South Australia. In 1931 Radcliffe-Brown went to Chicago, and Raymond Firth was appointed Acting Professor. Three years later, after Firth’s departure for London, Elkin was appointed to the Chair, which he held until his retirement in 1956. During the post-war years he did fieldwork in various parts of Arnhem Land.

This obituary first appeared as: RAI News. 1979. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 35, p. 14 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

RAI News. 1979. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 35, p. 14 (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/a-p-elkin).



RAI News. 1979. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 34, p. 20 (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/a-p-elkin-c-m-g).


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