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Shirley Aldythea Andrews (1915–2001)

by Jennifer Hibben

Shirley Aldythea Marshall Seymour Andrews (1915-2001), biochemist, Aboriginal-rights activist, dancer and researcher, was born on 5 November 1915 in Melbourne, the only child of Dora (or Doris) Andrews, nee Gray and putatively Arthur Andrews. Shirley was educated at Miss Montfort’s school in Sandringham and later a boarder at St Michael’s Grammar School, St Kilda. She undertook a science course at the University of Melbourne from 1934 to 1937. Sharing a house with her mother during her first years at the university, she rented flats and houses in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, later building a house in North Melbourne.

At the completion of her B.Sc. she won a Caroline Kay Scholarship and worked for six years at the Veterinary School of the University of Melbourne, doing biochemical testing of animal tissues and fluids, as well as testing for poisons. In 1947 she joined the CSIR, later CSIRO, as a Research Officer and worked there until 1951. She came to the attention of ASIO in 1949 because of her relationship with Bill Bird, Victorian Secretary of the Seamen’s Union, and her membership of the Communist Party of Australia. ASIO alerted CSIRO as to her political affiliations and it was difficult for her to remain at work there. She had been asked to join the Unity Dance Group in a trip to Berlin for a World Youth Festival in 1951 and spent  six months overseas, visiting several communist countries in Eastern Europe after the Festival.

After her return she eventually found work in 1953 at the Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital with Dr John Cade. She was the senior biochemist and managed the laboratory, undertaking the blood serum and urine tests that complemented Dr Cade’s work on the use of lithium for the treatment of manic depression. She also published papers on the abuse of bromureides by patients and eventually had the drugs removed from over-the-counter sale. She retired from Royal Park in May 1977.

During 1951 Shirley Andrews was a founding member of the Council for Aboriginal Rights in Victoria (CAR) and upon her return from Europe became its Secretary. The CAR was instrumental in establishing a national body to seek economic and civil rights for Indigenous Australians. Shirley was on the committee of the Federal Council for Advancement of Aborigines (later FCAATSI) until 1968 and was instrumental in leading the National Petition Campaign, which prepared the ground for the 1967 Referendum [when Australia voted to count Aborigines in the census and to give the Commonwealth the power to make laws ‘for the people of any race’, and thus for Aborigines]. Shirley worked assiduously to enable Australian Aborigines to come under the jurisdiction of the Federal government, rather than remain subject to the States.

Shirley began to learn ballet when at university, eventually taking lessons with Edouard Borovansky, from whom she learned about ‘character dances’. She joined Margaret Frey, another pupil of Borovansky, in her classes and the Unity Dance Group, which performed at events of the Australian Communist Party (CPA) and deepened her appreciation of Australian folk dance. Shirley played a part in establishing the Folk Song and Dance Society and the Victorian Folk Music Club, the latter encouraging her to begin researching how Australians used to dance in the nineteenth century. Her research led to the seminal book, Take Your Partners, and the production of three videos with Lucy Stockdale, entitled ‘How Australia danced last century’. She was an inspired teacher and leader of dance classes, and organised formal balls and regular dances for dance groups for the Traditional Social Dance Association of Victoria. Her research into dance and dance styles continued with the Victorian Dance Assembly until two weeks before her death.

Andrews’ involvement in the CPA was a vitally important part of her life. She was linked to the Communist Party through front organisations from 1934, although the time of her joining and leaving the Party is problematic. Although from a solidly middle-class background, privileged in many ways, Shirley was enterprising, independent and sympathetic to progressive causes to which she joined her beliefs about social justice. She was involved with the Movement Against War and Fascism while at university, took part in Egon Kisch’s visit to Melbourne and was witness to the ‘Spanish Debate’ in the Public Lecture Theatre in 1937. The united front activities of the CPA dovetailed with Shirley’s increasing interest in the left of politics and she joined or was involved in the activities of several organisations run under the auspices of the CPA, including the Left Book Club, Union of Australian Women, Eureka Youth League, Australian Book Society, Friends of the Soviet Union and the New Theatre. It would appear that she joined the Party officially in 1945 or 1946, struck by its cultural programmes and the optimistic prospect of an improved world with greater equality. Her sensitivity and low threshold of embarrassment were an important aspect of her political life and reflect the choices that she made about which activities to undertake for and within the Party. It also reinforced her preference for turning a more modest face to the world. Like many involved with the CPA who engaged in a wide range of cultural political activity, she remained a part of the activities and organisations even when they had left the Party. Shirley appeared to drift away from the Party without a precise defining moment but was influenced by the variety of events that signalled a questioning of the idealistic allegiance to a Soviet Russia, whose Stalinist secrets were progressively revealed: Lysenko’s dogma; the Doctor’s Plot of 1953; the invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Shirley is remembered by those who knew her best as a highly intelligent, uncompromising individual who had strong beliefs and a vision for Australian life, plus a remarkable energy that she brought to bear on its realisation. Shirley’s combination of interests and the depth of her engagement in them were unusual. They were united by her belief in them and how they might contribute to a more just society.

* this obituary is based on Jennifer's PhD thesis, 'Shirley Andrews: A Prismatic Life' (University of Melbourne, 2012).

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Citation details

Jennifer Hibben, 'Andrews, Shirley Aldythea (1915–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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