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In Memory and in Archive: Phyllis Kaberry and Margaret Mead

The Top Paddock
Diane Losche

Research Associate in Anthropology at the University of Sydney

13 July 2021

As a graduate student, the American-Australian anthropologist Diane Losche was mentored by the great Margaret Mead. Their common interest in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea led Losche to the London archive of another feminist trailblazer.


Phyllis Kaberry in Bamenda, Cameroon, 1960. L-R: Councillor Alfred W. Daiga; Mrs. E.M. Chilver; the councillor to Prince Tita Fombon of Bali; Phyllis Kaberry; Councillor Jeremiah Tutuwan Ngu. Photographer unknown. Phyllis Kaberry Papers, University College London. Courtesy of London School of Economics Library Archive and Special Collections.    

Most people have heard of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, a great public figure and definer of the twentieth century. Not so many remember another remarkable woman: Australia’s own ‘Margaret Mead’, Phyllis Kaberry. Like Mead, Kaberry embarked on fieldwork by herself, working in the Kimberly region of Western Australia at the precocious age of twenty-four. Like Mead, her research was published in a work considered ground-breaking. Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane (1939) was the first publication to take Australian Aboriginal women’s lives seriously. In another Mead connection, Kaberry went to the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea before the Second World War, conducting ground-breaking research on the Abelam people. Like Mead in the United States, Kaberry was featured in the local press as a ‘dashing adventurous young woman’, emblematic of a new generation. They described her as well-educated, fearless, and independent.

After World War II the destinies of these two women diverged. While Mead became a renowned public intellectual, Kaberry’s life took her to University College London (UCL) where she remained until her death in 1977. As a professional anthropologist, she was known primarily to colleagues, students, friends and family. Her life became ordinary and private, compared to Mead’s extraordinary one.

As an anthropologist of the next generation, I was a professional daughter to both these women and got to know them both, albeit in very different ways. Margaret and I would meet in her tiny office at Columbia University or her huge office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She was a significant advisor as I prepared for my research in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, the same area where Margaret, Reo Fortune, Gregory Bateson, and Phyllis Kaberry had all worked many years before.


Margaret Mead at the New York Academy of Science, 1968. Photograph by Stephen Siegel. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Wikimedia Commons.

So much has been written about the remarkable Margaret that one hesitates before adding further. Does anything more need to be said? Well yes, if only briefly. To me it is as if Margaret never really left. Not only do I have my own memories but I researched her enormous archive at the Library of Congress, held her intimate letters to fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict in my hands, went to the same Ivy League women’s college, and handled the artefacts that she collected for the American Museum of Natural History. All I can add to the cacophony of words about her is that she was very generous and took great care of me as a student. I never experienced the egomaniacal, domineering character she sometimes appears to have been. She was direct, clear, thoughtful and calm, responding honestly, though not always positively, to my plans. She introduced me to Gregory Bateson, and others, who were of great practical assistance.

The last time I saw her she was clearly ill. I had returned from my research in Papua New Guinea and went to visit her at the museum. This tiny woman was behind her enormous desk, surrounded by piles of papers and books. As always, she focused intently, welcoming me more warmly than I remembered. I wondered if I had passed some test by completing fieldwork. The visit devastated me, seeing her so physically diminished by her illness, a form of pancreatic cancer that would soon kill her. Her intent gaze, extraordinary focus and intelligence were still the same. I never saw her again in the flesh but she seems still here with me, so entwined is my life with hers in memory as well as archive, embodied in the places we shared.

I never met Phyllis Kaberry, but also feel like her professional daughter. I worked in the Abelam area of Papua New Guinea almost forty years after she did. I always wanted to meet this woman in particular—wanted to sit across from her and have a conversation. I had so much to discuss: puzzles, problems of Abelam culture, things I didn’t understand. Fieldwork on one’s own can be a lonely experience, not because the people one is doing fieldwork with are unfriendly or unwelcoming, but because there is no one with whom to discuss the ongoing difficulties of learning another language, another culture. I often thought: if Kaberry were here…

All I had of Kaberry were her rather dry published essays on the Abelam that she herself labelled as preliminary reports, clearly planning to write more. But she never did. After the war her fieldwork took her to the Cameroons area of Africa and she did not return to her Abelam research. Unlike Margaret, I never got to meet the real Kaberry, was never able to put flesh on her bones, or hear her speak. I didn’t, at that point, even have a photograph. In 1976 when I did my fieldwork, there was no such thing as the internet. She died just as I was finishing my research.

But I did finally get to meet her one sunny afternoon in the library of the London School of Economics where the UCL archives are now kept. In a beautiful calm room with huge half-moon windows letting in the light, I opened a tattered manila envelope and out spilled small black and white photos of Phyllis: a luminous image of a delicate, young woman in the Sepik; sitting with magnificently garbed men from the Cameroons; at her desk at University College London looking tired and not so happy.


Phyllis Kaberry at her desk at University College London, 1957. Photographer unknown. Phyllis Kaberry Papers, University College London. Courtesy of London School of Economics Library Archive and Special Collections.

Spending days in her archive, I finally got to know Phyllis Kaberry: to handle the meticulous, delicate maps that she drew; to go through hundreds of index cards containing vocabulary of the Abelam language, which had not been written or studied; to read her fieldnotes. I examined the stunning black and white photos she took of the area, known for its spectacular ritual. Most precious for me, I got a taste of this young woman’s voice in letters to friends, which finally provided a sense of the person behind the dry reports. Phyllis wrote poetry and was an excellent wordsmith so the last word about this place, the Sepik, that unites Margaret and Phyllis and I, will go to her:

Sunset, hills indigo, the sky rose and turquoise…native gatherings are brilliant, the sunlight has a rare golden quality. Sometimes you have golden daggers of sunlight splintering through the palms…the yams dappled with light beneath a palm shelter, bird of paradise plumes, tawny and fernlike at the tips, deepening to gold and then to soft purple.

Kaberry brought her poetic and analytic skills to investigating the lives of women whether in Africa, Australia or Papua New Guinea. She is now celebrated as far ahead of her time in her feminist sensibility, which she also brought to her students at UCL. Although I never met her I feel as if I too were one of those who benefitted from her teaching.

Connection comes in different forms. Sometimes one can reach through time and connect to ghosts. Sometimes they never leave us.


Phyllis Kaberry visiting the Sepik River, 1938-9. Photographer unknown. Phyllis Kaberry Papers, University College London. Courtesy of London School of Economics Library Archive and Special Collections.


Further Reading

Folder labelled ‘Letters from NG’, Phyllis Kaberry Archives, Kaberry Additional Box 2, London School of Economics Library Archive and Special Collections.

Kaberry, Phyllis, ‘Law and Political Organization in the Abelam Tribe, New Guinea.’, Kaberry, Phyllis, Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane, London, Routledge, 1939.

Kaberry, Phyllis, Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane, London, Routledge, 1939.

Kaberry, Phyllis, ‘Law and Political Organization in the Abelam Tribe, New Guinea’, Oceania, 12(1), 79–95.

Ardener, S., Richards, A. I., Kaberry, P. M., & Ward, B. E., Persons and Powers of Women in Diverse Cultures: Essays in Commemoration of Audrey I. Richards, Phyllis Kaberry, and Barbara E. Ward , London, Berg, 1992.

Losche, Diane, ‘What Has Been Forgotten: The Discourses of Margaret Mead and the American Museum of Natural History Sepik Expedition’ in Martin Thomas and Amanda Harris (eds), Expeditionary Anthropology: Teamwork, Travel and the Science of Man, Oxford, Berghahn Press, 2017.

Mead, Margaret, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, London, Routledge, 1935.

About the Author

Diane Losche is a graduate of Columbia University. In 1976-7 she did research for her PhD in anthropology at Apangai, an Abelam village in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, not far from the village of Kalabu where Phyllis Kaberry worked in 1938-9. She was supervised by Margaret Mead until Mead’s death in 1978. In 1982 she completed a major exhibition about the Abelam at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Between 1990 and 2017 she lectured at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales where she published on the Abelam as well as art and museum topics. She is now a research associate at the University of Sydney.

In this story

Diane Losche

Diane Losche

Research Associate in Anthropology at the University of Sydney

The Top Paddock

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