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Ursula McConnel
Ursula McConnel.jpg
Ursula McConnel, Queensland, approx 1938
Born(1888-10-27)27 October 1888
Died6 November 1957(1957-11-06) (aged 69)
Alma materUniversity of Sydney
Known forWork with Wik Mungkan people, Cape York Peninsula
Scientific career
FieldsAustralian anthropology
InfluencesSir Grafton Elliot Smith, W.J. Perry, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir
InfluencedAnthropology of Aboriginal people of Cape York

Ursula Hope McConnel (1888–1957) was a Queensland anthropologist and ethnographer best remembered for her work with, and the records she made of, the Wik Mungkan people of Cape York Peninsula.

First trained at University College London, then supervised by Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown in the Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney, McConnel was one of the first women to be trained in anthropology and then go out to observe Aboriginal Australians in remote areas, systematically documenting, recording, and describing their culture, mythology, beliefs, and way of life.[1][2][3]

Early life

Born on a grazing property called "Cressbrook" (near Toogoolawah, Queensland), Ursula McConnel was the eighth child (fifth daughter) of grazier James Henry McConnel and his wife, Mary Elizabeth McConnel (née Kent).[3]

Raised on the Cressbrook property in what has been described as an "austere" and "repressed" family environment, she was:[1]

"Striking in looks, brilliant in intellectual gifts, she passed through Brisbane High School for Girls and New England Girls' School at Armidale, garlanded with prizes, before taking first-class honours in philosophy at the University of Queensland

Ursula McConnell has been described as a brave, free-thinking, open questing woman with sometimes strong emotions, growing up at a time when the first wave of feminism n Australia was coming of age: " .. a perfect test case for the various ideas of self-creation .."[1] who also, during troubled times studying, came under the shaping influence of her brother-in-law and psychologist Elton Mayo, husband of her sister Dorothea McConnel:[1]

"She was a student of herself [and] believed the human mind could not only be probed and subjected to intensive study through its social context but that its individual workings could be analysed and known in depth"

She was once engaged, never married, and being financially secure in her investments in wool bonds, devoted her life to her anthropological research endeavours in Western Cape York Peninsula, driven by a strong sense of duty and justice to the people with whom she had worked.[3]


At New England Girls' School she received prizes in singing and languages.[3] From ages 17 to 19 she attended courses in history, politics, literature, and music at King's College London. By the age of 20 she completed and attained a first-class honours in philosophy and psychology at the University of Queensland.[3]

At the age of 35 she commenced a doctorate in anthropology at University College London, but, lonely, stressed, and ill she returned to Australia in 1927 without completing her doctorate. On her return, under Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (University of Sydney) she started doing ethnographic research amongst the Wik Mungkan people, Cape York Peninsula.[3]


Between 1927 and 1934 McConnel undertook five field trips into the Cape, and published numerous articles plus a book (entitled Myths of the Munkan) mostly about the Wik Mungkan people, and the Aboriginal Australians of Cape York generally. During this period she was also awarded a Rockefeller fellowship (1931–33) to study under Edward Sapir at Yale University, in the United States of America.[3] Her series of articles in Walkabout magazine[4][5][6] in 1936 promoted her research, and her concern over the treatment by government and missions of aboriginal people, to the general public.[7]

She attempted to obtain a doctorate in anthropology from University College, London, by submitting her publications, but, in the end, never obtained that doctorate, though still laying a significant foundation for present day anthropological research amongst the Aboriginal peoples of the region.[3]


Newspaper articles

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d Rothwell, Nicolas (2009) "Enigma Variations"[permanent dead link] Article in the Australian, 15 August 2009. Accessed 17 August 2009
  2. ^ Sutton, Peter (2008)Ursula McConnel as a public intellectual, Lecture at McCleay Museum, 15 June 2008[permanent dead link] Accessed 8 June 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Perusco, Anne O'Gorman "McConnel, Ursula Hope (1888–1957)" Archived 17 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine Accessed 8 June 2009
  4. ^ Ursula H. McConnel, 'Cape York Peninsula: (1) the Civilised Foreground', Walkabout, June 1936, 16–19
  5. ^ Ursula H. McConnel, 'Cape York Peninsula: The Primitive Playgound', Walkabout, July 1936, 10–15
  6. ^ Ursula H. McConnel, 'Cape York Peninsula: Development and Control', Walkabout, August 1936, 36–40
  7. ^ Rolls, Mitchell; Johnston, Anna, 1972–, (co-author.) (2016), Travelling home, Walkabout magazine and mid-twentieth-century Australia, London, UK New York, NY Anthem Press, an imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company, ISBN 978-1-78308-537-8
  8. ^ Sydney Morning Herald (17 April 1929) "Girl Anthropologist: Cape York studies"