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Elsie was born on the 14th August 1909 in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Her father was the Commissioner for Native Affairs under Sir Hubert Murray. She was educated in Australia, first at Morvern College in Moss Vale, then at St. George College becoming school captain. In the 1930s she gained a scholarship to study at the newly founded Anthropology Department at the University of Sydney, and graduated in 1933 with a B.A. Dip Ed. In 1935 she completed her Master of Arts based on law and order in Papua New Guinea.
In 1933 at age 24, Elsie was appointed the position of Scientific Assistant in the Australian Museum’s Anthropology department with colleague Fred McCarthy. She was one of the few women to be officially involved with the early phase of Australian archaeology before its establishment as an academic discipline. While employed by the department she was involved with museum registration, management of archaeological collections and contributed to amateur excavations and collecting. Elsie was one of the first staff at the Museum to give ABC radio talks on anthropological topics and gave a series of lectures in the Museum’s popular Science Lecture Series.
Unfortunately when Elsie took the name of McCarthy as her own in 1940, she could not remain at the Museum, nevertheless she continued to be unofficially involved with the collections.
Elsie was ahead of her time in advocating protection of Australian Indigenous sites. In 1938, while still employed by the Museum, she attended the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) meeting in Auckland and advocated protection of Aboriginal sites and artefacts, preceding both popular and professional opinion. She was a member of the Anthropological Society of NSW from 1935-1939 and a part of the editorial committee for the society’s Mankind magazine between 1940-1946.
Elsie is perhaps best known for her contribution to the collection and study of Australian Aboriginal stone artefacts. With Fred, she made collections of stone tools at Marooba, Wondabyne, Dee Why and Port Kembla. After leaving the Museum she continued to work with her husband on weekends, collecting and recording sites around NSW. In 1946 she co-authored with McCarthy and H.V. Noone, The stone Implements of Australia, in Memoirs of the Australian Museum. This work is noteworthy for the early recognition of the complexity of Australian Aboriginal stone tools and providing a systemised descriptive framework for them.
Her passion for the Museum and anthropology continued throughout her life. Elsie was present at the opening of the new Aboriginal Gallery of the Australian Museum in March 1985. On 14th May 1985, she passed away in hospital after a long illness, leaving behind Fred and her 3 children, Martin, Susan and David.