It is a common misconception that someone who is "blind" sees nothing at all. Many people, while "legally blind" or having "low vision," still retain some useful vision, although it may appear very restricted to the general public. The following
originally appeared in November 1993 and illustrates the great diversity of accomplishments that, while appearing impossible, may be achieved by someone with limited vision. Although excerpted, the following obituary, with all of its details, is an eloquent testimonial to the accomplishments of Norman Tindale in a variety of academic fields.
Philip G. Jones
At the age of sixty-six, and after a professional career of forty-nine years spent in the service of the South Australian Museum, Norman Barnett Tindale received an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1967. Among the voluminous manuscripts bequeathed by Tindale to the South Australian Museum is a collection of thirty-nine letters written by colleagues and peers from around the world in support of this award. As more than one letter observed, that such an award was being contemplated by an American university did not reflect well upon the lack of initiative of Australian institutions in this respect. Tindale was eventually honoured with a doctorate by the Australian National University in 1980. But none of those letter writers, assessing the contribution of an anthropologist and scientist in the twilight of his career, could have predicted that Tindale would continue to publish and undertake research for another quarter of a century.
Tindale was an early starter as well as a late finisher. He had already published thirty-one papers on entomological, ornithological and anthropological subjects before receiving his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Adelaide in March 1933. These papers joined a further 100 papers published during his employment at the South Australian Museum, an average output of three papers each year, mostly published in refereed journals. In this sense he was an outstanding product of the British institutional science tradition - trained on the job, self-educated and judged by scientific contributions rather than degrees. That the Australian expression of this tradition also reflected a perennially meagre budget commitment to science on the part of state governments and a general lack of public support in most intellectual areas may have been apparent to Tindale, but was rarely dwelt upon. There was work to do.
Tindale was born in Perth on 12 October, 1900, the eldest of four children. His parents were committed members of the Salvation Army and in 1907 the family travelled to Tokyo, Japan, where his father took up a position as an accountant with the Salvation Army mission operating in China. Tindale's personal and professional life was marked by turning points; this was the first. He grew up with a good knowledge of German and French, as for several years these were the only languages taught in the small private school which he attended with the children of diplomats. One of Tindale's close school friends was Gordon Bowles, later to become Professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University as well as a colleague in wartime Intelligence work. But Tindale spent most time with the children of Japanese neighbours, speaking street Japanese, playing in the semi-rural suburbs of Tokyo (still a largely feudal city), and exploring the countryside nearby. It was these rambles, and resultant trips to Tokyo's Imperial Museum, which introduced Tindale to the world of natural history and to entomology in particular. Through the Museum, his father's library, and his own experience of Japanese customs, Tindale gained a taste for anthropology.
But by the time that the Tindales left Japan during August 1915 to settle first in Perth and by February 1917, in Adelaide, Norman had no doubt that he would pursue a career as a natural scientist. Butterfly and moth collecting had become his passion and he explored the possibility of gaining a job at the South Australian Museum. Aware of a possible impending vacancy there, he took up a position as a library cadet at the Adelaide Public Library in May 1917 working alongside another young cadet, the future nuclear scientist Mark Oliphant. More than thirty years later, Tindale encountered Oliphant again, in the Top Secret area of the Washington's Pentagon, emerging from a section labelled 'Manhattan Project'.
A few months after taking up his cadet's position Tindale lost the sight of one eye in an acetylene gas explosion while assisting his father with 'limelight' photographic work. The accident dulled none of Tindale's enthusiasm or ambition. Just before the explosion he had begun to read Alfred Wallace's Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro; a few days after the explosion he took it up once more and wrote in his diary: 'My mind seems made up about following such a life as his. I hope to take him as my model' (Tindale ms.). In January 1919 he finally secured a Museum position as Entomologist's Assistant under the mercurial Arthur M. Lea. He later recalled that Lea told him, 'Tindale, you'll never make a blind entomologist, but you might make a blind anthropologist!'. Both seemed possible to the young scientist.
The next turning point in Tindale's career came when he received permission in 1921 to undertake an extended field trip to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The opportunity arose through Tindale's family background in missionary activity. This had brought him into contact with the Church Missionary Society of Australia and Tasmania, which was extending its mission work from a base at Roper River to Groote Eylandt. Tindale was engaged by the Society for twelve months to assist in the establishment of a home on Groote Eylandt for half-caste children from the mainland. He was to be given time to collect for the South Australian Museum which would purchase his specimens at the completion of the trip. At this stage no Aboriginal objects from the island were preserved in any museum. Tindale's Director, Edgar Waite, recognised the ethnographic potential of the expedition and directed the young entomologist to visit the doyen of Australian anthropologists, Baldwin Spencer, at Melbourne's National Museum, for advice. Spencer introduced Tindale to the Geographic I method of language transcription, the basis for Tindale's unique collection of more than 150 parallel vocabularies across Aboriginal Australia.
Tindale followed Spencer's advice to the letter and gathered a remarkable collection of ethnographic data and more than 500 artefacts from Groote Eylandt and Roper River during his twelve months in the field. This was the longest period to that date spent by a scientist in the company of Aboriginal people. During that expedition Tindale's main informant . . . introduced the young scientist to the concept of bounded tribal territories, 'beyond which it was dangerous to move without adequate recognition' (Tindale 1974: 3). Yet Tindale went to Groote Eylandt and the Roper as a naturalist, and returned as one. The crucial shift in his career took place well after his return to Adelaide, when his synthesis of anthropological data for publication made him aware of the openings and challenges which the new field offered. In particular, when Edgar Waite insisted that Tindale remove tribal boundaries from a map of Groote Eylandt and the adjacent mainland being prepared for publication in the Museum's Records, maintaining that nomadic Aborigines could not occupy defined territories, Tindale realised that a new paradigm in ways of regarding and describing Aboriginal Australia was sorely needed.
The Groote Eylandt expedition revealed Tindale's remarkable appetite for fieldwork. Taken together, his dozens of field trips amounted to more than seven years of his professional career spent in the field, an average ratio of nearly two months of every year. A colleague later observed that Tindale was never quite himself back at the office, and it required very little to entice him out once more. But it was in the field, exposed to the nuances and implications of the natural and cultural environment which he regarded as the unrestricted object of his study, that Tindale came into his own. His broad-based training enabled him to undertake this task confidently and to weave together the diverse strands of natural and human science. Trained in geology (a Pleistocene Stratigraphy course at the University of Adelaide) under Douglas Mawson, geography under Grenfell Price and heavily influenced by the publications of Wallace, it was axiomatic that Tindale would adopt a strongly ecological approach to his field observation and collecting. This approach was greatly reinforced by his contact with Aboriginal people for whom the distribution and habits of plant and animal species were crucial data. Tindale's bibliography reflects this great diversity of interest and its complementary character, particularly in the case of his geological papers which overlap with those discussing Pleistocene archaeology, or his entomological or botanical papers which overlap with interests in linguistics or material culture.
Looking back on Tindale's career it is possible to discern half a dozen research paths which he followed, converging and diverging but persisting across several decades until his death. Few specialists would attempt to emulate such a course.
In entomology, his first love, Tindale selected the study of the Hepialidae, one of the most primitive of the moth families; in geology his particular interest became the study of Pleistocene shore-lines and Tindale was to become recognised as one of the 'foremost workers on the Pleistocene geology of Australia' (Daily 1966). In linguistics as in broader anthropological studies his object was to gather sufficient data to scientifically describe variation in Aboriginal culture and society across the country. The same applied to his physical anthropological surveys. More focused studies, such as an investigation of initiation practice, Western Desert art and mythology, or the detailed description of a coastal and riverine society, followed from this survey data. In archaeology, informed by his geological and ecological training, Tindale's object was to establish the broad canvas on which more specific applied or theoretical investigations could be painted. Tindale's field trips became the testing ground for this tumult of ideas and theories against a background of wide reading in each area. and constant rapport with colleagues, nationally and internationally.
Tindale's life was full of such connections. The most striking, yet least known, was the use which he made of his intimate knowledge of the Japanese language. At the outbreak of the Second World War Tindale's attempt to enlist in the Australian army was thwarted by his damaged eyesight. With Japan's later entry into the war his value to military intelligence operations was soon recognised; he and his brothers, together with his old friend Gordon Bowles, were among the few Australians fluent in Japanese. During 1942 Tindale joined the R.A.A.F. and was assigned the rank of Wing Commander in England before being transferred to the Pentagon to advise on strategic bombing. There he headed the military intelligence unit charged with deciphering Japan's military codes and with ascertaining the origin and volume of production of munitions and spare parts. Tindale and his small unit spent time combing through the wreckage of crashed Japanese aircraft. They intensively analysed this debris in a laboratory established at his initiative near Brisbane. Through metallurgical and serial number analysis and by deciphering the company marks found on different components Tindale obtained remarkably accurate data on production figures and Japanese shortages of critical alloys. Professor W. V. MacFarlane later wrote: 'this somewhat esoteric complex of knowledge of language, ability to associate minute and apparently unrelated fragments of information to induce patterns of understanding, and to deduce consequences, has been characteristic of his work amongst Aboriginals from every part of the continent and its surrounding islands' (MacFarlane 1966).
Tindale eventually achieved two breakthroughs which altered the course of the war in the Pacific. Both are still unknown to the wider public. He was instrumental in cracking the Japanese aircraft production code system, which gave the Allies reliable information as to Japanese air power. More importantly, he and his unit deciphered the Japanese master naval code. Another commander in U.S. military intelligence later wrote that the success of the attack 'upon the homeland of Japan was more effectively measured through the work of Tindale and his group than through any other source of intelligence we had available at the time' (Brown 1966). This fact was established through the Strategic Bombing survey undertaken in Japan after the war.
Just as extraordinary was Tindale's application of his special skills of detection in halting the only enemy attack on the continental United States - the fire-bombing of the Pacific North-West which occurred for a twelve-month period during the war. The attacks caused many forest fires and killed several civilians. Tindale examined the shattered remains of the balloon carriages which transported these bombs from Japan and established not only the rate of their production, but their points of manufacture and release. With this information those sites were bombed and destroyed, ending this form of attack.
Tindale was reluctant to talk about this momentous phase in his career, believing himself, even as late as 1989, to be bound by the wartime British Official Secrets Act. He continued his practice of keeping a daily journal throughout the war period but restricted his observations to natural history and anthropology. He found time to record anthropological detail and collect artefacts during his 'special duties' in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. During spare moments in America he studied and reorganised the Australian osteological collection at the Smithsonian Institution and even discovered a new species of Lepidoptera (Sthenopis darwinii) in Tennessee.
Tindale's entomological career may have been overshadowed by his anthropological achievements but he never lost contact with
Tindale had begun collecting and classifying butterflies in Japan at the age of ten. His professional entomological studies began during his Groote Eylandt expedition of 1921-22. Concentrating upon the Lepidoptera and the Orthoptera on his return, Tindale undertook revisions during the later 1920s of the Australian Mantidae (mantids) and Gryllotalpidae (mole crickets), regarded for decades afterwards as standard works in this field. But it was his interest in the more primitive Lepidoptera . . . which established Tindale's long-standing international reputation as an entomologist.
Tindale became a world authority on the hepialid moths, a notable achievement considering the difficulties which they present to researchers. In acknowledging this, H. K. Clench of the Carnegie Museum observed that the moths are often rare, and with brief flight periods, difficult to collect in adequate numbers for study; their characters are cryptic and, because of their ancient origins, their distribution poses additional problems for the investigator who requires an intimate knowledge of them across their entire world distribution (Clench 1966). Patiently amassing material and data over several decades, visiting museums throughout the world and collecting in as many regions and environments as possible, Tindale acquired this knowledge and earned the respect of his entomological colleagues. He discovered and described many geographical races of moths, some species, and many life histories, carefully analysing the events which he considered were responsible for each situation. In John Calaby's words, his entomological studies became 'much more than mere descriptions of animals' (Calaby 1966). His attention to the evolutionary implications of his data was of great importance to the much broader fields such as speciation patterns and the general evolutionary history of the Australian fauna as a hole.
. . . [He] undertook annual expeditions during the university's August vacations of the late 1920s and the 1930s with the primary object of recording series of physiological and sociological data relating to Aboriginal groups which had experienced little sustained contact with Europeans. [It was] ensured that these data were recorded within an ecological frame, encouraging . . . members to note aspects of geology, flora and fauna. Tindale applied this general approach to the study of Aboriginal territoriality, relating particular groups to specific environments through a range of careful observation, backed up by ethnographic and archaeological evidence. He developed this approach thirty-five years before territoriality and ecology (or even Australian anthropology itself) became voguish fields.
He collected and documented artefacts with a strong awareness of how their manufacture reflected necessities dictated by the environment and opportunities to manipulate or exploit that environment. Over the years the careful accumulation of such detail resulted in important papers on material culture and the Australian environment . . .." During the 1930s he paid particular attention to the documentation of social, as well as technological, processes, and was encouraged . . . to master the arts of sound and film recording. Wax cylinder recordings of ceremonies . . . were made separately by Tindale on each of these expeditions; in many cases they represent the only surviving record of their kind.
Tindale's concern was not to preserve an account of culture for its sake, but to document in sufficient detail to enable further analysis by others. 'Making a useful record' was a phrase he often used, applying it equally to his compilation of 150 parallel vocabularies as to his descriptions of manufacture and use of spears, spear-throwers, dishes, stone tools, resin, hair string, and other essential items of desert life. An artefact could be collected, together with examples of raw materials used in its manufacture, and the process could be filmed. All processes and observations and linguistic terms were recorded meticulously in note form, together with the genealogies and backgrounds of the makers or participants, from whom further mythological detail could be elicited through crayon drawings on brown paper which he distributed and later carefully annotated.
[His] journals, . . . collected specimens, and the entire range of his publications, sound recordings, films, photographs, genealogies, crayon drawings, maps and other illustrations will remain as this tireless worker's legacy. The lasting significance of this data lies neither in its bulk nor its scope, but in the fact that it was gathered with a focused goal in mind, to describe the diversity of an entire people before transformation by European contact. Tindale was well aware that his attempt to do this, as symbolised by his 1974 map of 'Aboriginal Tribes of Australia' and its accompanying compendium, would never be fully acceptable and that, indeed, its chances of acceptance would diminish as more and more scholars entered the field. Nevertheless, when he began his task in the 1920s, the number of practising anthropologists in Australia could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and he believed in his ability to complete the task, although he once confided in this author that he didn't have time to die until about 2020.
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