Morning Glory Clouds of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Donald F Thomson

Thomson, Donald Fergusson (1901 - 1970, Born Melbourne Vic)

Thomson was Professor of Anthropology, University of Melbourne 1964-68. He had been associated with the University for many years as a Research Fellow and Associate Professor. He collected and studied widely on the Cape York Peninsula and in Arnhem Land.

Born 26 June 1901. Educated Universities of Melbourne (BSc, DSc), Sydney (Dip. Anthrop.) and Cambridge (PhD). OBE. Research Fellow, University of Melbourne 1932-37 and 1945-53, Associate Professor 1953-64, Professor of Anthropology 1964-68. Led three expeditions to Cape York Peninsula, North Qld, 1928, 1929, 1932-33 and Arnhem Land 1935-37. Led three expeditions to Great Sandy and Gibson deserts, Central WA, 1957, 1963, 1965,. Wing Commander RAAF 1939-44. David Syme Research Prize 1936, Wellcome Gold Medal (London) 1938, Patron's Medal Royal Geographical Society 1951, Lewis Gold Medal, Royal Geographical Society of Australia, SA Branch 1952, Rivers Memorial Medal RAI 1953.

Reproduced from Bright Sparcs with permission of the Australian Science Archive Project.

Donald Thomson was born in Melbourne and studied natural science at the University of Melbourne. While there he developed a proficiency in photography, particularly of scientific and natural history subjects. After graduating in 1925 he took a one-year diploma course in Anthropology at Sydney University, and then accepted a cadetship at the Melbourne Herald In 1928 Thomson obtained a grant of 600 pounds to work among the peoples of Cape York. He made three expeditions to this area, in 1928, 1929 and 1932-33. He worked among the people of eastern Arnhem Land in 1935 and 1936-37, and between 1941 and 1943, as Squadron Lender in the RAAF he organised Arnhem Land Aborigines into a Special Reconnaissance Unit. In 1957, 1963 and 1965 he led expeditions to the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts. He received an OBE in 1945 for his military service in New Guinea and in 1950 he received a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Cambridge. In 1932 he had joined the University of Melbourne as a research fellow attached to the Department of Anatomy and in 1968 he retired as professor of Anthropology. Thomson was involved in the setting up of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and served on its council. He wrote numerous articles and several books. His notes, photographs and collection of material objects made in Arnhem Land, Cape York and the desert, form the single most important ethnographic collection made in Australia.

From Children of The Dreamtime: Traditional Family Life in Aboriginal Australia, Donald Thomson, Penguin 1989.


As one may gather from the biographies above, Donald Thomson was a man of considerable accomplishment. Shortly after his death in May 1970, I was engaged by Judith Wiseman of Melbourne University to help photograph and catalogue his collection, which at that time was housed in three locations: one on campus, one off campus, and a third at the Victoria Museum. I had the dubious privilege of working in the Old Morgue, site of the on campus collection. But a privilege it was to work with such an amazing wealth of information, and the further I delved the more my respect grew for a man in many ways ahead of his time.

The collection includes a vast number of photographic negatives, a great many of which are glass plates. It was difficult enough to process these in a photographic laboratory, but Thomson would build a bark shelter in the bush and process them at night. Working under extremely primitive conditions he produced outstanding images of very high quality.

Not only did he photograph every aspect of Aboriginal life in the locations mentioned above, but he also collected specimens of all the flora and fauna, each one of which was carefully annotated. Pickled snakes, stuffed birds, dried flowers, nuts, seeds, snail shells, every type of creeping, crawling, hopping, swimming or flying creature, every form of plant life is included in this all-encompassing collection, along with their botanical and Aboriginal names and what they were used for and who collected them and where and when.

He travelled over vast areas of the Australian continent on foot and on horseback, and by yacht and dugout canoe around the shores and rivers of Arnhem Land. Although often well equipped with packhorses to carry his photographic and scientific equipment, many of his forays were made with "little more than a toothbrush and a Colt 45", according to Miss Wiseman.

Russell White, July 1997.

Further details of the life of Donald Thompson

Thomson was responsible for organising northern tribes in opposition to threatened Japanese invasion after the bombing of Darwin. When this threat abated he became a coast watcher in Papua where he was severely wounded during an attack by head-hunters, resulting in a 9 month hospital stay. A large part of his life's work, a film on the Aboriginal lifestyle, was destroyed by fire. However, the remaining collection of his works - some 20,000 artefacts and images - is regarded as one of the most significant ethnological collections in the world.

In June of 1970 his ashes were scattered from an aeroplane over the waters of Caledon Bay.

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