Previous Next

Aboriginal History Volume 36, 2012

Doctor Do-Good: Charles Duguid and Aboriginal Advancement, 1930s-1970s by Rani Kerin, 203 pp, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2011, ISBN 9781921875298, $39.95.

Despite his prominent status as a campaigner for Aboriginal rights, it has taken until 2011 for Charles Duguid to be the subject of extensive biographical treatment. In her elegantly written and sympathetic biography, historian Rani Kerin details the activism of a man whose ‘efforts were, on the whole, appreciated by Aboriginal people and the wider society’ (p. 2). Best-known for his role in the establishment of the Ernabella Mission in South Australia, this in fact was just the beginning, for it set the scene for 40 plus years of campaigning.

Doctor Do-Good is not a typical birth to death biography. Kerin instead focuses attention on Duguid’s public life, his campaigning, and his rise to national prominence from the 1930s to the 1970s. Archival limitations necessitate this focus on Duguid and his public life, for he maintained an extensive collection of personal papers from the 1930s onwards. Despite this, Kerin successfully demonstrates the breadth and variety of his campaigning, his longevity, and the important role of his wife, Phyllis, in his work.

Kerin is also interested in assessing Duguid’s ‘exceptionalism’ as a campaigner. This is a question of much importance and significance in Australian history, given, as she notes, the criticism of ‘do-gooder’ white campaigners in recent scholarship. In light of this, Kerin considers Duguid’s personal ambitions, character, and his successes and failures as a campaigner. His platform was certainly different to other white campaigners of the era, preferring to argue for ‘equality of treatment’ rather than biological absorption or segregation, both prominent policies at the time. As a trained doctor, he was a methodical and practical man, but one of action too who sought out immediate solutions to issues, which found expression in his platform of Aboriginal advancement founded on his belief that Aboriginal people were not doomed to die out, but could be brought slowly into mainstream Australian life. He experimented with this philosophy at Ernabella from 1937. It was a cause that he remained committed to throughout the remainder of his life, and which found expression in all his campaigns.

Doctor Do-Good is structured in three parts, covering the main arc of Duguid’s campaigns in a largely chronological format. In Part 1 Kerin examines Duguid’s best-known public campaigns, and establishes the intellectual context for the emergence of Ernabella, setting the scene for the arrival of Duguid into the midst of missionaries, intellectuals, government officials and anthropologists all debating the extinction of Aboriginal peoples. Duguid, she argues, was exasperated by these groups, but happily drew upon their ideas combining them into a philosophy that he put into practice at Ernabella: a medical mission, and an experiment in using a mission to retain traditional ways of life. Duguid’s involvement in the 1946–47 rocket range campaign against British and Australian government plans to test rockets in Central Australia on Aboriginal reserve land, is covered in Chapter 2. It was a battle to save the reserve land. Land was an essential part of Duguid’s philosophy: to retain the land was crucial to maintaining traditions and culture. It was this that motivated his involvement, fearing what the loss of land would do to a way of life, and to Ernabella.

Duguid’s lesser known campaigns and his private life form the basis of the chapters in Part 2. Phyllis and Duguid’s working and private relationship are examined in Chapter 3, while Chapter 4 explores the relationship between the Duguid’s and their adopted Aboriginal son Sydney James Cook/Duguid. Phyllis was a reformer before she married Charles in 1930, and during her marriage she was to become a leading advocate of Aboriginal and mixed race women in Adelaide. She believed in Aboriginal advancement, fostering it through women’s organisations during the Second World War. Twenty years younger than Charles, and raised in Adelaide by parents who valued education, Phyllis became a teacher, and a reformer active in women’s social and political organisations, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She took part in establishing the League for Protection and Advancement of Aboriginal and Half-Caste Women in Adelaide, a pro-Aboriginal lobby group and the first organisation to use ‘advancement’ in its title. Concerned for the welfare of young women in the city, they group sought to establish a recreation centre, but quickly moved beyond this practical vision to much larger ones, including pushing for the appointment of women protectors and protective legislation.

Duguid is revealed as a man full of confidence in his vision, self-righteous at times, and prone to myth-making, with a desperate desire for public recognition. Nevertheless, his concerns for Aboriginal rights and welfare were sincere. This is an excellent biography of a man, his campaigns, visions, ideals and personal ambitions. It also offers insight into the context of the times, and carefully places Duguid into his historical and intellectual context. Kerin also navigates the contested history writing about white campaigners in Australia’s past, but she does it with grace and a light hand. Duguid is the star of this book, but Kerin does not celebrate him in the manner of the great man, even if he carefully cultivated that image for himself.

Angela Wanhalla

University of Otago

Previous Next