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Ursula Hope McConnel

Ursula Hope McConnel (1888 – 1957), anthropologist, was a student at NEGS from 1904-1905 during the very early years when Miss Florence Green, the founder of NEGS, was the headmistress.

Ursula was one of 10 born on a grazing property in Queensland. She was one of the many Queensland students who were sent to boarding school at NEGS. During her time at NEGS she received prizes for singing and languages.

After NEGS she studied courses in history, politics, literature and music at King’s College, London then went on to attain a first-class honours in philosophy and psychology at the University of Queensland. For a woman to receive such a high level of education, in this period, was fairly uncommon.

At the age of 35 she commenced a doctorate in anthropology at University College, London but due to illness she returned to Australia without completing her doctorate.

Upon returning to Australia Ursula started studying ethnographic research under Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (University of Sydney) in 1927 among the Wik-mungkana people in Cape York Peninsula. She became one of the first women to be trained in anthropology and then go out and observe Aboriginal Australians in remote areas, systematically documenting, recording, and describing their culture, mythology, beliefs and way of life.

Between 1927 and 1934 Ursula undertook five field trips into the Cape. She published numerous articles and in 1931 she was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at Yale University, in the USA. In 1936 she wrote a series of articles for Walkabout magazine to promote her research and her concern over the treatment by government and missions of aboriginal people.

Ursula applied to obtain a PhD from the University College of London based on her publications, however, she was unable to either obtain a doctorate nor academic employment in Australia.

Ursula never married despite living at a time when most women were financially dependent on husbands. She made enough money to support herself through her investment in wool bonds and when research funding dried up, she was able to semi-retire in the mid-1930’s. In the year of her death Ursula published the book “Myths of the Munkan” (1957) with the help of her friend, the poet and NEGS Old Girl, Judith Wright. (Judith mentions proof reading the book in her own book With Love & Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright (2006)).

The importance of Ursula’s scholarly contributions were recognised after her death. Together with Donald Thomson her publications form the foundations of present-day anthropological research on Cape York Peninsula.