Elsie Bramell was the first female anthropologist to be employed by the museum. She was a progressive thinker of her time, and it is amazing to think she had to leave her post due to her marriage to colleague Fred McCarthy in 1940. Elsie was a broad-minded woman when it came to the protection of Indigenous sites and heritage and the “absurd” theories of ethnic purity in the lead up to the war in Europe.
As a student of archaeology, the extensive work of Fred McCarthy was very familiar to me, however the woman behind the man was a mystery. Soon after their marriage, Fred became the head of the department, a position he would retain for a further 23 years, and was the only anthropologist working at the Museum until 1963. Much of the fieldwork he conducted was on weekends with the aid of his wife as the museum had no vehicles. This was despite the fact that in 1932 the Harvard University Museum offered the Australian Museum its first motor vehicle as a gift. This offer was rejected by the Museum Secretary, W.T. Wells, as the upkeep of the truck was a bit too steep.
What drew me to Elsie’s story was her foresight and passion for the protection of Aboriginal sites and heritage, a progressive opinion to have during the 1930s. In 1938, 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. Furthermore, Elsie was one of the few women to be officially involved with the early phase of Australian archaeology before its establishment as an academic discipline.
In 1936, in the Anthropological Societies of NSW Mankind magazine, Elsie wrote a book review of We Europeans: A Survey of Racial Problems, by Huxley, Haddon and Cape (1935). In this review Bramell wrote that the authors “presentation of the facts about race is a sober record of patient inquiry which reveals how ludicrous and asinine are the attempts of certain present-day leaders in Europe to use ‘racial purity’ as a political rallying cry”. Elsie’s views on the escalating situation in Europe are clear as she goes on to agree with the author’s opinion that the “Aryan race” is both absurd and mythical.
Elsie is perhaps best known for her contribution to the collection and study of Australian Aboriginal stone artefacts. 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. During McCarthy’s long and successful career, remarkably he published over 300 pieces of work. Recent reviews of Elsie’s role indicate that she should be credited with significant contributions to the work attributed to her husband.
Elsie was a fortunate woman to be university educated in the field of her passion and was an inspiring woman to learn about. Her story highlights the choice that many women have had to make between a career and a family. Fortunately for the Museum collections and scholarship, Elsie was able to follow her passions in an unofficial capacity aiding her husband in his studies.