Date of Passing: 10/08/2002
Elspeth Young was a social geographer who lived and practiced t he true values of a discipline committed to understanding the complex relationship between people and place. She chose to work largely with underprivileged or socially disadvantaged people in difficult or forgotten places.
Elspeth gained her initial academic education at the University of Edinburgh where she graduated with an MA, Honours in Geography in 1963. She gained her Diploma of Education from the same university a year later. University careers were rare for women at the time and she did what was expected and indeed what was the only avenue open, namely to become a teacher in a secondary school. She taught geography and mathematics at the Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire, Scotland until 1968.
In 1968 she left her well known Scottish environment to teach in a girl’s high school in Trinidad. Her great enthusiasm for geography and its explorations of other peoples and environments was firing her early in her career. Her adventurous spirit, that willingness to try new situations and take on fresh challenges was something we came to know so well and greatly admire. It was something she never lost. At the time of her death she was planning another field trip to the Gulf Country in northern Australia.
When a position in higher education became available to her she returned to Scotland to become a lecturer in geography in the Edinburgh College of Commerce. It was from here that she was recruited by Professor Gerard Ward in 1971 to become a research assistant and tutor in geography at the University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby. She was enormously enthused by that environment and gained an MA from the university whilst working there. With the aid of a scholarship she undertook a PhD in human geography at the ANU, still spending much time in Papua New Guinea where she did her field work. Her earliest publications, all resulting from work largely in the highlands, reflect the impact of this period of study. An important book which she wrote in collaboration with others entitled, Chimbu: Issues in Development, set her on the life of study and work with development issues in non-western cultures.
In the 1970s an informal network of women geographers and anthropologists developed in Canberra. Its members were women concerned with indigenous issues primarily in Australia. Elspeth was an active participant of that group. We met periodically to share concerns and assist each other’s studies. Meetings were in the various homes of Canberra women and Elspeth was extremely hospitable in sharing her home. I do not remember going there when she did not have someone staying, often people with whom she had worked in the field. Her hospitality and her generosity to others were almost legendary. Visitors needed to be cat lovers and to enjoy her garden with her. She gave that same friendship and support to Aboriginal students and to those from developing countries. Such friendship outside the classroom was an important factor in their success.
On completion of her PhD Elspeth remained in Canberra and took a position of research fellow at the ANU first in the Development Studies Centre and then in the Department of Demography. It was during this time that she became actively involved in Aboriginal research. Her 1981 book entitled, Tribal Communities in Rural Areas, was a significant result of her research at the time and was the first volume in a series which she and Professor EK (Fred) Fisk initiated and edited. I came to know Elspeth particularly well during this period and contributed a volume to their series on Aboriginal situations. Thus not only was she undertaking important research herself but she was also facilitating the work of others.
In 1982 Elspeth joined NARU, the North Australia Research Unit of the ANU. During this time Elspeth was based in Darwin and lived in one of the houses provided by the Unit. Here she concentrated on research amongst indigenous communities in northern Australia and her work resulted in a number of important publications which had an impact on policy and land claims. I, like so many other visiting researchers to the Top End at this time, experienced her generous hospitality.
In 1985 she returned to Canberra to take up a lectureship which eventually led to an associate professorship in geography at the Australian Defence Force Academy of the University of New South Wales. She continued her research in northern and central Australia culminating in two crucial books, Aborigines, Land and Society, published by Longman Cheshire in 1993 and Third World in the First: Development and Indigenous People published by Routledge in 1995. This latter book studies the role of economic enterprises in socioeconomic development in remote, indigenous communities in Australia, Alaska and Canada. These books helped further an understanding of the difficulties of rural indigenous people and were clear evidence of her total commitment to their welfare.
Much of her field work she undertook alone in very difficult circumstances. Comfort was of little concern in the search for truth and justice. Seeing her at work in the field I soon realised it was the interest of others that concerned her well above her own needs. After one incident when she had considerable problems with a vehicle she was driving across the desert she became known to the mechanic of a garage she eventually reached in a small isolated town as a ‘wee toughie’. This image captures the true Elspeth, undaunted by circumstances that would deter many an experienced male field worker.
In 1994 she moved from ADFA to a readership in graduate studies in environmental management and development at the ANU. She continued her research on indigenous community-based planning and sustainable development in Australia. Her major interest was planning for remote Aboriginal communities and the development of a sound foundation for economic and social reform. She undertook some important studies and consultancies on the Aboriginal role in managing Australian national parks. Whilst maintaining her Aboriginal interests she widened her studies to development issues in other areas in Asia and the Pacific. Her teaching position in development studies meant that she had graduate students from many parts of the Asia-Pacific region. She was always ready to travel, to meet people on their own ground, but she also did much to facilitate the opportunities of graduate students who came to Canberra.
Elspeth was an active participant in many organisations. She was a member of the Council of the Institute of Australian Geographers for many years and was editor of the Journal at the time of her death. She was very supportive of Institute activities and always attended and gave a paper at IAG conferences. The last conference was held in Canberra in July this year. She was in hospital at the time and regretted that it was the first conference that she had not given a paper at since her arrival in Australia. The timing of the conference meant that many geographers were in Canberra and colleagues she had known and worked with over the years came to visit her in hospital. This was tiring for her but it was also an important opportunity for her to say goodbye. She was planning to leave hospital and fly to see her family in the UK at the end of that week and there was the unspoken realisation that we would not see her again.
The Institute of Australian Geographers was but one of her many commitments to the discipline and to the social sciences in general. For the last ten years she has been a member of the Academy of Science, National Committee for Geography. She was a member of the executive committee of the Federation of Australian Social Science Organisations and of the Social Science Network of UNESCO in Australia. Elspeth’s many interests included the Antarctica. The photos she sent back of penguins from a visit there made me marvel at her enthusiasm for adventure. No doubt her knowledge and experience were the reason she was appointed Chair of the Australian Antarctic Names and Medals Committee.
Elspeth was elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2000. In true Elspeth style she immediately threw herself into activities and offered to assist in any way she could. She was concerned that she was not well enough to attend the whole of the symposium and annual general meeting last year though she did come to a great deal in spite of the fact that she was having chemotherapy and was not allowed to drive her car .
There were also many activities outside academia that engaged Elspeth. She was a keen singer and sang with both the Canberra Choral Society and the Oriana Chorale. She was a member of the committee of the Canberra Choral Society and undertook editing for the society and also was involved in programming. Elspeth was always full of ideas and willing to assist in any worthwhile activity. The sudden illness was a great shock to all who knew her. She was always so active and healthy. Indeed early last year not long before the diagnosis she had gone to the Institute of Australian Geographers conference in Dunedin, New Zealand, and topped that up with a hike along the whole of the Milford Trail. She was energetic and seemed extremely fit.
Along with her academic colleagues many indigenous people have mourned her death and been glad to have had her presence in their midst. We give thanks for Elspeth’s great contribution to Australian society.