Woman Berndt, Catherine (1918 - 1994)

8 May 1918
Auckland, New Zealand
12 May 1994
Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Alternative Names
  • Webb, Catherine (Maiden)

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Catherine Berndt studied anthropology under A. P. Elkin at the University of Sydney from 1940 to 1943, after completing a BA at Victoria University and a Certificate of Proficiency in Anthropology from the University of Wellington. At Sydney University she met and married fellow student Ronald Berndt. According to Geoffrey Gray, the 'Berndts were not the brightest and best of Elkin's students - a fact acknowledged by Elkin - yet they went on to accept his mantle as the authorities on all matters to do with Aboriginal Australia and Aboriginal Studies' (Grey, p. 77).

For Elkin, the Berndts, as a married research team, were in the perfect position to study Aboriginal men and women at the same time - and particularly contribute to further knowledge about Aboriginal women, which he felt was lacking. It was, however, Ronald's career he supported; although Catherine's academic achievements were greater than Ronald's, as a married woman, her role was to support her husband's career rather than ambitiously pursue her own. Nevertheless, while the Berndts did do a great deal of work as a team, Catherine's fieldwork and academic work was extensive in its own right. During the late 1940s, Berndt was able to verify and extend Phyllis Kaberry's observations about Aboriginal women's role in politics, economics and religion through fieldwork in Ooldea, along the Lower Murray and Arnhem Land.

In 1951 Catherine was awarded an Ohio State Fellowship from the International Federation of University Women and Ronald obtained research funds from the Department of Anthropology in the University of Sydney. In the early 1950s, the couple did fieldwork in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. New Guinea, always an attraction for Australian-based anthropologists, though one that had been disrupted during World War II, was becoming a more crucial site for research. Elkin had backed Ronald Berndt as his successor as Professor in Anthropology at the Sydney, but his wishes weren't followed and the position was awarded to the Africanist J. A. Barnes. Denied this posting, in 1957 the Berndts moved to Perth in 1957 to establish a centre of anthropology which eventually became the Department of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia with Ronald as head of department and professor. They both taught within the department, although Catherine only held the positions of Visiting Tutor and Part-time Lecturer. They continued to research and publish widely. In 1983 the University conferred on Catherine an Honorary D.Litt for her services to Anthropology and the University. She held the position of Senior Honorary Research Fellow in Anthropology until her death in 1994. The breadth and extent of the Berndts' research and publications, both as a team and alone, has made a major contribution to anthropological knowledge in Australia.

Published Resources


  • Berndt, Ronald M. And Berndt, Catherine H., The First Australians, Ure Smith, Sydney, New South Wales, 1952. Details
  • Berndt, Ronald M. And Berndt, Catherine H., End of an Era: Aboriginal Labour in the Northern Territory, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Affairs, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1954. Details
  • Berndt, Ronald M. And Berndt, Catherine H., Arnhem Land: Its History and its People, Cheshire Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 1954. Details
  • Berndt, Ronald M. And Berndt, Catherine H., Aborigines in Australian Society, Pitman, Melbourne, Victoria, 1985. Details

Journal Articles

  • Grey, Geoffrey, 'You are if I may say so, my anthropological children: Patronage and the early anthropological career of Ronald Berndt and Catherine Berndt, 1940 - 1956', Aboriginal History, vol. 29, 2005, pp. 77 - 106. Details
  • Grey, Geoffrey and Munro, Doug, 'Australian Aboriginal anthropology at the crossroads: Finding a successor to A. P. Elkin, 1955', The Australian Journal of Anthropology, vol. 22, no. 3, December 2011, pp. 351 - 369. Details
  • Sutton, Peter, 'Ronald and Catherine Berndt: An Appreciation', Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology, vol. 11, no. 2, 2001, pp. 121 - 124. Details
  • White, Isobel, 'Catherine Helen Berndt', Oceania, vol. 65, no. 1, September 1994, pp. 1 - 3. Details

Online Resources

See also