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Norma McArthur (?–1984)

Norma McArthur who died on 17 January, of cancer, had been a member of three departments at ANU — Demography, RSSS, 1952-70: Research Fellow, Fellow, Senior Fellow and Professorial Fellow; Prehistory, RSPacS, 1970-4: PhD Student; Pacific and Southeast Asian History, RSPacS, 1975-80: Senior Research Fellow. At the time of her death she was Visiting Fellow in the last department. Hers was, to say the least, an unusual academic progression, but it had a basic logic which she followed through with great determination, absolute honesty and considerable verve and charm.

Central to Norma McArthur's career was a passion for the statistics of birth and death, initially their biological applications, subsequently their economic and political implications and increasingly their historical dimensions.

It began when, with a degree in mathematics from the University of Melbourne (1941) and a few years of statistical work in wartime administration and industry (including a stint at Mt Stromlo), she entered the Department of Experimental Medicine at Melbourne under Macfarlane Burnet in 1945. It developed at University College, London, where in 1947 she became a graduate student in the Department of Eugenics, Biometry and Genetics, working in the field of biological statistics under Haldane and Penrose, and where in 1949 she took up a position as Assistant Lecturer in Demography. It was given its definitive character when she came to ANU in 1952, a young university charged with a national role in a country newly conscious of itself and its place in a region.

Part of that region was occupied by the small island colonies of the Pacific, where the population statistics basic to planning of every kind, including planning for independence, had never been systematically collected.

Norma McArthur was to fill that gap. She was responsible for the round of censuses taken simultaneously and more or less uniformly in 1956 in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands and later became consultant to other island territories following this lead: the Solomons in 1959, the Gilbert and Ellice in 1963 and the New Hebrides in 1967. Her book Introducing Population Statistics (1961) was at the same time the fruit of such work and a practical contribution to it.

This first-hand experience in the Pacific Islands alerted her to the difficulties of collecting even the simplest demographic facts about them and caused her to question the accepted wisdom of earlier years about their population histories. Her major work, Island Populations of the Pacific (1967), a landmark in Pacific historical studies, reconstructs the demographic fortunes of a number of island groups from first contact to 1956 by submitting all available figures provided by explorers, missionaries and government officials, wherever they could be found, to critical historical assessment and rigorous analysis for demographic fit. Amongst many other things, it challenged the widespread belief in the cataclysmic nature of the decline in Pacific population numbers as a result of European impact and thus the various conclusions which had been drawn not only in the realm of scholarship but also in that of policy.

At the same time that Norma McArthur, using the documentary evidence, was scaling down the accepted figures for Pacific Island populations at contact, prehistorians were attempting estimates of their own, based on the unexpectedly long histories of settlement newly revealed by archaeological research and assessments of carrying capacity provided by studies of traditional economies.

Not merely did she become interested in this new approach, she determined to learn its essentials, the better to assess its contribution to the demographic debate. On the eve of 50 she enrolled as a doctoral student in the Department of Prehistory, RSPacS, and prepared herself for archaeological fieldwork on the island of Aneityum in southern Vanuatu, then the New Hebrides — small, remote and very rough.

Norma McArthur's work on Aneityum laid the basis for later archaeological research there, exploring the prehistoric background to the contact situation which her dissertation elucidated. She herself was appointed in 1975 to one of the academic positions-at-large funded by RSPacS in those less straitened days for the support of scholars whose research crossed departmental boundaries.

She settled by preference in the Department of Pacific and Southeast Asian History. Here she pursued the varied lines of work into which her rich professional and practical experiences had led her. Taking up the challenge presented by the prehistory of Australia and the Pacific Islands — all settled by colonists coming by sea — of how many people, or how few, were needed to make landfall to establish a viable population in an uninhabited land, she carried out simulation studies of small population isolates in association with scientists of the CSIRO Division of Mathematics and Statistics. She kept in touch with follow-up studies of the Eastern New Guinea Highlands communities affected by the fatal disease known as kuru, in the study of whose baffling patterns of afflication she had been involved as demographer in the late '50s and early '60s.

Norma McArthur was a figure of force around the University for many years. She was a forthright and sometimes discomforting member of committees and boards and representative, for a time, of the non-professorial staff of IAS on Council, and in these roles, as in her one-time Fellowship of the Academy of the Social Sciences, was widely respected. Her strengths of character and will were balanced by a great capacity for enjoyment, alone and in company. Her range of acquaintance was enormous and diverse, her friendships close and long-lasting.

Norma McArthur attained positions of prominence and authority at a time when women were even fewer in such circles than they are now. Because she was a woman, she was called upon beyond the norm to serve in a variety of capacities. She acquitted all her responsibilities with conscientiousness and combined them with a satisfying private life. She died as she lived, clear-sightedly and with enormous courage.

Original publication

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Citation details

'McArthur, Norma (?–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 January, 1984

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)