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Amanda Harris - Margaret McArthur: A case study of women’s place in two expeditions of the 1940s

1947 Nutrition Survey to New GuineaMargaret McArthur launched her professional life participating in two formative expeditions in 1947 and 1948. As a biochemist she travelled to New Guinea as part of an Australian Government nutrition survey. In the following year she was the nutritionist on the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. In this much larger undertaking, she was the only woman scientist and found herself both methodologically and politically at odds with the paternalistic supervision of the Expedition leader, C. P. Mountford. The Institute of Anatomy enabled her participation in each of these expeditions; its deliberate recruitment and support of female scientists not only created the conditions conducive to their success, but also valued their contributions to knowledge about food. Their gender was an important aspect of their expertise in the preparation and nutritional implications of food—the domain of women in New Guinea —as in many cultural contexts.

Fish Creek Camp, October 1948In thinking about McArthur’s early expeditions, I will discuss not only the place of women in expeditions, but also the place of expeditions in the careers of women. The opportunity McArthur had to observe a range of fieldwork techniques on the 1948 Expedition influenced her later turn towards anthropology. These early experiences strongly influenced her future choice of field sites in Papua New Guinea for her anthropological research, where she worked largely independently and with some resistance to the demands of the institution supporting her work. Archival footage, photographs and recollections illuminate McArthur’s participation in the performative context of the two expeditions. McArthur’s experience acts as a useful case study for reflecting on the role of women in the male expedition construct.


Amanda HarrisAmanda Harris is a Research Associate on the Australian Research Council-funded project ‘Intercultural inquiry in a trans- national context: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land’ (AASEAL) at the University of Sydney. Amanda obtained a PhD from the University of New South Wales in 2009 with a historical thesis on women composers and feminism in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. Her publications have appeared in Women & Music and Life Writing and in several books on women’s music history. Her current work on Margaret McArthur and the Arnhem Land Expedition draws on her experience analysing first-person narrative accounts of individual and collective biographies, and gendered historical analysis. Amanda’s current research projects include studies of the diaries and letters of AASEAL expedition members in relation to the internal class and gender dynamics of the group and an exploration of the social structures created by McArthur and her team’s practice of rationing Aboriginal people in West Arnhem Land.


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