Friday, June 21, 2013

OBITUARIES: Donald William McElwain AO, ED, FBPsS, HonFAPS 1915-2000.

(Mac was Head of the Dept. of Psychology during my time at UQ -- JR)

Don McElwain was one of the foundation members of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and was a member of its interim Council from 1962 to 1964 and Council from 1964 to 1974. He was the Chairman of the Psychology, later Education and Psychology, Panel from 1973 to 1978. The Institute was to occupy much of his commitment and interest. He had deep respect for the vision of the Hon. WC Wentworth and the founding members who contributed so much to ensure the secure foundation. The initial work was to salvage at-risk languages but the focus quickly broadened to include the widest coverage of all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life. McElwain gained great satisfaction from the progress of the Institute with its broad compass of academic and social contribution. In an interview (15 February 1969) recorded by the then Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, Laurie Thomas (1976:248-52), he said, `In general I am in agreement with the policies of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. I think the policy of land ownership by Aboriginals has important psychological implications in that a person owning land has, in part, freed himself from the overwhelming feelings of dependency that many Aboriginals have'.

He spent many long hours late at night or on early foggy mornings at Canberra airport as the sole Queensland member travelling to Council and committee meetings in the early days of the Institute. He had great admiration for the steady and careful direction of Fred McCarthy, the founding Principal. He quickly recognised the important contribution of the members of the early Council. With the appointment of Dr Peter Ucko he saw changes which brought rapid expansion that created a university-like structure which profoundly advanced the growth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies in Australia. The growth, and particularly the controversies, in archaeological and linguistic scholarship brought him much excitement and pleasure.

His interest in cross-cultural psychology goes back to childhood in New Zealand where the Depression influenced the community. He was conscious of the prevailing narrow attitude towards Maori and was concerned at the failure of many to appreciate the richness and complexity of their culture and heritage.

Donald McElwain was born in Wanganui in the North Island of New Zealand on 8 May 1915. He was educated at Wanganui Technical College where he won a scholarship to Victoria University College in Wellington. The Depression was still pressing on the rural communities and the University of New Zealand permitted students to complete first-year university at selected high schools before transferring to Wellington, so his first-year studies were done concurrently with his last year of secondary studies.

He took his BA in 1933 in Education and Philosophy, and his MA with First Class Honours in Education in 1934. While at the university he was a resident of Weir House. Catherine Webb, later to become the wife and life-long partner and collaborator of Ron Berndt, was a student at the same time. He was awarded the New Zealand Postgraduate Overseas Scholarship to undertake post-graduate studies at University College London. On completion of the degree in 1937, Dr McElwain returned to Wellington where he was appointed as a statistician with the Social Science Research Bureau of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

In 1939 he was appointed as Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Western Australia where Hugh Fowler was Head of Department. In 1940 both he and Fowler were members of the Davidson expedition (Fowler 1940), working with Aboriginal groups from the Gasgoyne area of northwestern Australia.

In June 1942, following the appointment of Fowler to the position of Director of Psychology in the newly established section of the Adjutant General's Branch, he was called up by the Australian Military Forces and appointed Assistant Director and Officer in charge of the Research Unit of the Australian Army Psychology Service. He remained a consultant to the Australian Army for more than 40 years and was the Colonel Commandant of the Australian Army Psychology Corps from 1976 to 1980. He served as a member of the interim Council of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

While serving with the Army during the war he was involved in a large number of research projects concerned with the selection and psychological adjustment of serving soldiers. Later he was to advise the Australian Army about selection procedures for a locally raised military force in Papua and New Guinea. This was a difficult task, given the large number of languages in that country. This ruled out the use of traditional group assessment procedures. Very few of those tests which claimed to be culture-free lived up to their title, so new techniques and instruments had to be developed. The resultant work was a milestone in that a psychological instrument was developed which could be used with very remote populations and at the same time had high validity when used with standard Australian populations and special populations such as the deaf (Kearney and McElwain 1970).

In 1995 he joined with Dr Alex Sinclair, a consultant psychiatrist from Melbourne and Col. EF Campbell, the Director of Australian Army Psychology, to conduct the first survey into the mental health of Papuan and New Guineans (Sinclair 1957). When the University of Papua and New Guinea was established, there was an attempt to encourage him to apply for the vice-chancellorship, but he steadfastly refused, arguing that it was essential to have a Papua New Guinean in that position.

In 1946 he had been seconded to the University of Melbourne to establish the Department of Psychology until the professor-designate, Oscar Oeser, was able to be released to take up duty. McElwain was appointed the Senior Lecturer in Melbourne and, in 1952, Associate Professor in that Department.

In November 1955 he was appointed foundation Professor and Head of Department at the University of Queensland where he remained until his retirement in 1983. The university had rejected efforts to introduce the teaching of anthropology and there seemed to be little likelihood of the establishment of the discipline in Queensland. By his initiative he was responsible for the formation of anthropological teaching in Queensland. The demand for psychology was strong and when a new lectureship was established the job description required an appointee to have breadth in social theory. This led to the appointment of Dr Donald Tugby who held dual qualifications in anthropology and psychology. Subjects were introduced in anthropology. From this initial appointment the demand for further teaching grew until an independent Department of Anthropology and Sociology was established in 1964.

Over the years McElwain became a recognised leader in the field of cross-cultural psychology. The University of Queensland was the first Australian university to offer courses in cross-cultural psychology. He also introduced a subject, The Psychology of Art', in which Aboriginal art had a predominant place.

In 1949-50 he was a Nuffield Fellow in the Social Sciences at the Institute of Psychiatry, London. In 1963 he was invited to be a Senior Technical Expert of the United Nations Technical Assistant Board (International Labour Office), attached to the Government of India. In 1971 he was appointed Visiting Professor at the School of Education, University of the South Pacific.

He became an Associate of the British Psychological Society in 1944 and was elected a Fellow in 1948. He was a member of the Australian Association of Philosophy and Psychology, and, in 1946, was its President. In 1944 he was one of the seven Fellows and Associates of the British Psychological Society who signed a petition requesting the formation of an Australian Overseas Branch. He was Chairman of the Australian Branch for 1958-59 and was Editor of the Australian Journal of Psychology from 1949 to 1960. During this time he produced the AJP's first twelve volumes and journal's two monograph supplements. He was a foundation member of the Society and served on its Council and a number of committees. In 1973 the Society conferred on him the rare honour of Honorary Fellowship (Anon. 1974). There is a limit of 15 Honorary Fellows in a membership that currently stands at over 12,000.

Much of his most influential writing was in the form of submissions to governments and others. In the early 1960s he found that the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Fred Schonell, had nominated him to prepare the University of Queensland submission on child welfare legislation. With John Keats they examined the Aboriginal legislation to see how it would be affected by the changes. The result was that they petitioned the Attorney-General and brought about major change in, not one, but two pieces of Queensland legislation.

Through his professional life of over 40 years, Professor McElwain was a devoted and accomplished teacher. His clear lucid style matched with his academic integrity and scholarship made him one of psychology's greatest exponents. He was equally committed to promoting Aboriginal and cross-cultural studies. Thomis (1985:396), in highlighting the achievement of the University of Queensland, reported that `McElwain and Sheehan in psychology, have ... reached new heights in their respective fields and brought distinction to the university through their achievements'. He was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday list 1981 for services to psychology.

Donald McElwain married Marie LeRoy in Perth in 1939. She was a distinguished artist and they had a son, Sean, and a daughter, Suzanne. Marie died in 1983. In 1986 he married a fellow psychologist, Dr Madge Horan, who survives him.

He was an imposing man but of gentle disposition and never possessive or territorial. He was impressive. In a recollection of the early period of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Moore (2000:18) describes a perceived demarcation dispute: `Beneath him (the psychiatrist Ashburner) the psychologists initiate radical selection methods under Captain McElwain. At ACER the Major is referred to as the "office boy", McElwain is referred to as "God".'

There will never be another psychologist quite like Don McElwain. Universities have changed and no longer value the great generalists and integrators. The place of great teachers and scholars is not recognised unless they are also great publishers. During his academic career the climate was receptive to new ideas and he unselfishly devoted himself to the values of a university life that rejoiced in the success of colleagues and students.

When he died in the early hours of Monday 26 June at the age of 85, a chapter closed in the history of academic and professional psychology in Australia.


Anon. 1974 Honorary Fellowship, Australian Psychologist 9, 81-2.

Fowler, H.L. 1940 Report on Psychological Tests on the Natives in the North of Western Australia, Australian Journal of Science 2, 124-7.

Kearney, G.E. and D.W. McElwain 1970 The Queensland Test Manual: A Manual for Use with Assessment of General Cognitive Capacity under Conditions of Reduced Communication, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.

Moore, D. 2000 Memoirs of Psychology 1943-6, A Continuation of Memoirs 1939-1943, The ACER, InPsych 22(4), 8-20.

Sinclair, A. 1957 Field and Clinical Survey Report of the Mental Health of the Idigenes of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Government Printer, Port Moresby.

Thomas, L. 1976 The Most Noble Art of Them All: The Selected Writings of Laurie Thomas, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.

Thomis, M.I. 1986 A Place of Light Liberty and Learning: The University of Queensland's First Seventy-Five Years, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.


McElwain, D.W. 1944 The Scope of Mental Testing, Medical Journal of Australia 126, 573-5.

-- 1944 Some Considerations in Selecting the Army Test Battery, Bulletin of Industrial Psychology and Personnel Practice 2, 1.

-- 1945 Psychology: Wartime Lessons for Post-war Industry, Institute of Industrial Management, Melbourne (28pp).

-- 1949 The Use of Films in Teaching Psychology. In N.H. Rosenthal (ed.), Films in Instruction, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 44-8.

-- 1949 The Establishment of Norms for Heights and Weights of Infant and Pre-school Children in the City of Melbourne, Melbourne City Council, Melbourne (48pp).

-- 1949 The Application of Psychological Methods in the Armed Forces of Australia. In F. Baumgarten (ed.), Progres de la Psychotechnique 1939-1945, A. Francke, Berne, 72-83.

-- 1950 A Review of Psychology in Australia, Journal of Occupational Psychology 24, 141.

McElwain, D.W. and A. Lubin 1950 A Note on the Notion of Psychological Significance, Australian Journal of Psychology 2, 43-51.

McElwain, D.W. 1951 A Suggested Method of Combining Criterion Groups, Australian Journal of Psychology 3, 47-54.

-- 1955 A Near Century of Psychology in Melbourne, unpublished ms (Psychology Part III Final Lecture 1955), Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, October (39pp).

McElwain, D.W. and D.M. Griffiths 1957 Report on the Possibility of Using Psychological Procedures as an Aid to Recruitment in the Pacific Island Regiment, unpublished report for Department of Army, Headquarters Northern Command, Brisbane.

McElwain, D.W. 1960 The Psychological Imperative, Australian Journal of Psychology 12, 40-57.

-- 1963 Report to the Government of India on an Aptitude Programme for the Selection of Trainees for Industrial Training Institutions, International Labour Office, Geneva.

Oeser, O.A. and D.W. McElwain 1963 Notes on Psychological Research. In W.E.H. Stanner and H. Shells (eds), Australian Aboriginal Studies: A Symposium of Papers Presented at the 1961 Research Conference (Canberra, ACT), Oxford University Press, Melbourne (for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies), 346-52.

McElwain, D.W. 1966 Transcript of Talk ... to the Executive Committee of the Australian Pre-school Association, May 1966, Special Schools Bulletin 3(4), 12-15.

-- 1966 The Cognitive Abilities of Aborigines, University of Queensland, unpublished paper delivered to second general meeting of AIAS (42pp).

-- 1967 Cognitive Factors in Counselling and Selection, Report SPC/TMS/T16, South Pacific Commission: Technical meeting on the selection and assessment of pupils for promotion or vocational guidance, Goroko, 1967.

-- 1967 Studies of Some Aspects of the Cognitive Ability of Aboriginal Children, unpublished paper delivered to research seminar on education for Aborigines, Monash University, Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs, (18 leaves).

Kearney, G.E. and D.W. McElwain 1967 The Queensland Test Manual: A Manual for Use with Assessment of General Cognitive Capacity under Conditions of Reduced Communication, unpublished ms, Department of Psychology, University of Queensland.

McElwain, D.W. 1968 Some Aspects of the Cognitive Ability of Aboriginal Children, Special Schools Bulletin 5(1), 1-14.

-- 1970 Problems of Aboriginal Education. In In-service Conference on the Education of Aborigines ... Report, 13-20.

-- 1970 Report, Professorial Board, Committee Appointed to Investigate Examining Procedures (rev. ed.), University of Queensland, St Lucia (iv, 132pp).

Kearney, G.E. and D.W. McElwain 1970 Queensland Test Handbook: A Test of General Cognitive Ability Designed for Use under Conditions of Reduced Communication, Australian Council for Educational Research, Hawthorn (181pp).

-- 1970 The Queensland Test: A TV Training Videotape (two versions), University of Queensland Television Unit, Brisbane.

McElwain, D.W. 1973 Remarks on Testing in the Pacific. In L.J. Cronbach and P.J.D. Drenth (eds), Mental Tests and Cultural Adaptation. Papers Presented at a Conference held in Istanbul on July 19-23, 1971 under the Sponsorship of the NATO Advisory Group on Human Factors and the Turkish Scientific and Technical Research Council, Mouton, The Hague, 211-15.

McElwain, D.W. and G.E. Kearney 1973 Report to the Public Service Board on the Selection of Non-standard Populations for the Australian Public Service, unpublished report.

Bianchi, G.N., D.W. McElwain and J. Cawte 1973 The Dispensary Syndrome: Origins of Bodily Preoccupation and Sick Role Behaviour. In G.E. Kearney, P.R. deLacey and G.R. Davidson (eds), The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians, John Wiley & Sons, Sydney, 341-51 [originally published as `The Dispensary Syndrome in Australian Aborigines: Origins of Their Bodily Preoccupation and Sick Role Behaviour' in British Journal of Medical Psychology 43, 375-82 (1970)].

McElwain, D.W. and G.E. Kearney. 1973 Intellectual Development. In G.E. Kearney, P.R. deLacey and G.R. Davidson (eds), The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians, John Wiley & Sons, Sydney, 43-56.

Kearney, G.E. and D.W. McElwain 1975 Psychological Research in Aboriginal Australia [Review of Australian psychological studies], Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter 4, 27-55 (also as a separate publication).

-- 1975 Survey of Psychological Research in Aboriginal Australia: for the Psychology Panel [the Psychology Advisory Committee], Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (49 leaves).

McElwain, D.W. 1976 Problems of Problem Solving. In Kearney and McElwain (eds), Aboriginal Cognition: Retrospect and Prospect, 133-41.

Kearney, G.E. and D.W. McElwain (eds) 1976 Aboriginal Cognition: Retrospect and Prospect, Proceedings of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Conference on Cognition, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, and Humanities Press, New Jersey.

Kearney, G.E. and D.W. McElwain 1976 Introduction. In Kearney and McElwain (eds), Aboriginal Cognition, 1-15.

Callan, V.J. and D.W. McElwain 1980 General Considerations in the Research with Ethnic Minorities, Australian Psychologist 15, 181-7.,+ED,+FBPsS,+HonFAPS+1915-2000.-a072609295

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