Arthur Murch

(Chapter 5 from a book by Ria Murch
just unformatted text at this stage)

Six months in the Central Australian desert in the midsummer heat ? It was not everyone's idea of a holiday, but for Murch, and the three young doctors it was an adventure right out of Boy's Own Annual. Harold Whitridge Davies the distinguished third Professor of Physiology at the University of Sydney's Faculty of Medicine (1930-1946) had a grant from the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation. He was going to Central Australia in January 1933 to test Aboriginal endurance in summer heat and with little water. They met in December 1932 at Professor Whitridge Davies's family home in St. Peters, Adelaide where the Energy Research Expedition plans were outlined: Doctors John Antill Pockley, Hugh Barry and Maurice Joseph would assist with the testing. The "Prof" who frequently sailed with him on Windeyer's yacht invited Murch to join the Research Expedition because he wanted him to paint the life and people of the so called `dead' heart of Australia. He would also be called to `lend a hand' whenever needed. They would all live for six months among the Aboriginal subjects and under the same conditions at the Finke River Lutheran Mission. In temperatures over a century, and with heat dust and flies, they would measure the amount of water their subjects would drink, against the loss in urine and sweat.(1)

Hedley Marston lived near Professor Davies in Adelaide. He had earlier arranged for Murch to carry out a design for the memorial to his colleague Brailsford Robertson at the University of Adelaide. Over the Christmas holiday, he had Murch make a pencil portrait of him and of his C.S.I.R. colleague, Sir Charles Martin, then Professor of Biochemistry and General Physiology in the University of Adelaide.(2)

The senior members of the Energy team Dr S.Halcro Wardlaw and Stanley Larnach, the naturalist, met up with them at the railway station in Adelaide on January 5th, Between them all there was a mountain of baggage to pack on the train. It included scientific equipment and a truck to carry it all from the railhead at Alice Springs to their destination Hermannsburg, eighty miles from Alice Springs. It was a day's journey on `the Ghan' to Quorn. Then a two day luxury trip to Alice Springs with sleeping and dining cars and an observation carriage. Hugh Barry and John Pockley decided to grow moustaches on the trip. Judging by his self portrait Murch did not appear to shave at all through the six months in Central Australia.

The train was an hour and a half late. It whistled for the last mile or so before reaching Alice Springs late in the afternoon of January 7, 1933. Past the Heavitree gap with its cradling mountain pass. A curious crowd of aborigines and outlying station dwellers were there to greet their arrival at Alice Springs. There were 600 inhabitants and most of them seemed to be in town. It was buzzing with news of the gold boom at the Granites and of murder. A corpse had been found near the diggings and the suspects were being held at the police station. The writer Ernestine Hill was in town to report on the Granites gold boom. John Pockley was met by his friend, Dr David Brown, the only medical man in Central Australia.

His house was next door to the `Stuart Arms' the oldest pub in town. A little self consciously because the Adelaide Advertiser(3) story had drawn the crowd's attention to the Expedition, they unloaded their gear, and went in search of a thirst quencher. From the gazes of the merely curious at the railway station they came under the disapproving scrutiny of the barmaid. It did not take her long to sort them out. She was unimpressed. She wiped her eyes and delivered judgement. "When I heard you all had come thousands of miles to the desert to measure the Aborigines' piss I nearly died laughing."

Two days later on January 9th they loaded their gear on the three ton truck and set out on the 80 mile trip to Hermannsburg.

Hermannsburg, born of evangelistic zeal and heroism belongs to a unique of almost forgotten history of Aboriginal missionary endeavour in Australia. The Finke River Mission Station a delapidated old cattle run was bought in 1894 by the Lutheran Immanuel Sydnod in South Australia. Carl Friedrich Strehlow (born Fredersdorf, Germany, 1871) and Friedrich Willhelm Albrect, (born Poland, October 1894) were the first administrators.

Carl Strehlow, took over the remote station in October 1894 during a period of seemingly never ending drought. A remarkable scholar, devoted missionary, strict in the handling of the mission's theological and educational role, he was sympathetic with the spirituality of Aboriginal culture but never doubted the rightness of the Mission's evangelising role. He made a study of Aboriginal culture and languages, and translated the bible into Aranda for the Mission people. His writings published in Germany in seven volumes (Stadtisches Volker-Museum Frankfurt (Germany) 1907-20) aroused great interest in Europe. His researches on Aboriginal culture and totemism were neglected in Australia due to the scepticism of the anthropologist Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer. From 1894 to 1922 he carried on the backbreaking pioneer work at Hermannsburg often without wages He left Hermannsburg only four times, once to get married. Worn out with his hardships and desperately ill he left Hermannsburg for the last time in 1922 to get medical help in Adelaide, With his wife and teen age son Theodor. he set out in a home made mission horse drawn cart. only to reach Horshoe Bend 150 (241 km) miles from Adelaide..On October 20. 1922 Carl Strehlow died . Forty seven years later in 1969 Theodor wrote his father's epitaph `Journey to Horshoe Bend ' a moving record of the event. With the setting sun on the 10th of January 1933 Professor Davies and his Energy team reached Hermannsburg. Tired from their truck and donkey team journey over tortuous dirt road , through scrub and spinifex, they were relieved when they skirted the Krischauf range and a few native wurleys and the white buildings of the Mission came into view.

After the Aborigines and then Pastor Albrecht and his wife Minna had made them welcome. they were treated to a huge meal in the German style. Not the most suitable in the circumstances, the night was hot and the air heavy with clouds that promised but would not deliver the longed for drought breaking rain. Sleeping quarters for the party were arranged, and duties allotted. Murch shared with John Pockley who was appointed meteorologist. They all relaxed. the `Prof' got out his gramaphone and all of the lads of the village came over for a smoko. They retired to bed too tired to notice the swarms of mosquitoes that descended as soon as the lamps went out. Next morning unloading the gear they found the sensitive balance which was to measure the Aborigines sweat and urine was intact, but the refrigerator would not work, it was no use for laboratory needs or keeping the Professors grog cool. Some jars of pickled cabbage were unpacked. Albrecht, overcome with nostalgia said to his wife Minna Look Mama s-s-saurkraut.

They could not have brought a more acceptable treat. Although the Missions 1,000 mile cattle run supplied basic food and employment for one hundred and sixty aborigines and white administrators, the supply of fresh foods depended on scarce water. The Finke varied from a trickle to a torrent, and could not be relied upon to grow any sustainable crop. During the 1926-29 drought there was no green food at all. The Aborigines developed scurvy and berri berri, 85 per cent of all infants and children died. Professor Davies made a report to the Health Department which met an early response. An officer of the Department visited Hermannsburg and ordered whole grain, replace white flour and oranges made a general issue. In 1933 Theodor Strehlow was twenty five committed to carrying on the work of his scholarly father, dividing his time between work at the Anthropology Department in Adelaide University and Hermannsburg. Like his three brothers who were born at Hermannsburg he looked on a the Aborigines as brothers.

John Pockley and Stanley Larnach were planning a trip on camel back to Mount Liebig. They would spend two weeks travelling 100 miles west of Hermannsburg in country inhabited by desert tribes, but inhospitable for the inexperienced white travellers. Theodor recommended they take the tracker Hezekial as guide. Hezekial could speak English and German as well as his native Aranda. Theodor and Albrecht were proud of his sophistication but regretted they could not make a Christian of him. John Pockley who was critical of the Mission's use of black evangelists to break down tribal religions, applauded Hezekial's stance. He gave the Lutherans full marks for protecting Aborigines from the religious observances of white society - alcohol, and the exploitation of Aboriginal women.

On January 26, 1933 Pockley, Murch and Larnach, set out for their great adventure. They had four riding and one pack camel. They carried nine gallons of water and nine gallons of formalin for Larnach's specimens, food and provisions, and they hoped to be back at Hermannsburg in two weeks before running out of supplies.

It was in the Mount Liebig region that Larnach hoped to find a specimen of the Notorycytes, a blind marsupial mole thought to be extinct. Murch wanted to paint the real desert. Pockley took a movie camera to record their travels and a rifle to supplement their food supplies. Pockley had taken camel riding lessons from `Bony Bream' Tilmuth the Afghan mail man, who warned him to be vigilant, camels could kick with both fore and hind legs, and would stand up suddenly the minute a foot went into the stirrup. Murch drew a remarkable portrait of the mailman. They travelled about 120 miles without seeing people. Hezekial pointed out track marks of a woman and a child. He tracked them to a waterhole twenty or so women and children but no men. Hezekial spoke to them they were friendly. Larnach filled hypodermic syringes with water and squirted it playfully like a water pistol. It was a great success. They all lined up for their turn to be squirted. Towards evening the men returned and with two nine to ten year old boys smeared with red ochre. The boys had just been taken from the care of the women to the men to learn the male skills of relationship, hunting,and ultimately to be circumsiced. To return hospitality the three sang choruses from various hymns. The Aboriginal audience was polite, but unmoved but Nellie Bly Caught a Fly was a real hit and they demanded more. Murch was lyrical about the country. He wrote:- "The MacDonnell's lie east to west two hundred to three hundred miles long. The ranges rise out of the desert, llike the long dead bones of colossal reptiles. Half buried, their vertebras convulsively pushing up out of the land. The massive ten miles of Mount Liebig rise in abrupt vertical cliff faces 3,000 feet about the plain. It was in this setting that I met and painted the desert aborigines, the strongly featured and diverse personalities of the of the Arunta, Ngalia, and Pentu Pui people." (Foreword to his exhibition Vic. Soc. ine Arts May 1933) Pockley was so impressed he wrote in his diary 17th January 1933.

"The colours in the evening clouds stretched from horizon to horizon and ranged through the spectrum. Even when looking at the display one hardly believes it. The red earth reflected back from the clouds and the dust in the light of the setting sun again coloured the ranges so that the plains seemed heliotrope and Mount Sonder and Mount Zeil away to the North turned purple."

Murch added: `If I tried to paint this people in the south would think me mad!' They travelled in the early morning and evening and rested in the middle of the day. At times Murch could not make the detailed notes he would have liked and Pockley noted that he fretted when he had to press on to areas where Larnach's specimens were thought to be found. (It was not here but at Ooldea that Larnach found the prized specimen).

In John Pockley's opinion `riding a camel must be about the most monotonous form of entertainment.' He carried on his mount an uncomfortaly long barrelled single shot 2 bore rifle `with a hell of a kick and tremendous range', he was a crack shot, holder of the University of Sydney's Regimental Marksman's Medal and kept them supplied with welcome fresh food. They ate porcupine, and found it rich and tender, they ate rabbits and other game cooked in the native way - whole, on the ashes. Murch carried in his saddle bags fifty pounds of sugar and flour, with which they made damper. They traded sugar flour and tea with Aborigines for churingas, pitchis and hunting weapons. With their limited medical supplies: aspirin, iodine and potassium permangerate Pockley treated sick aborigines. The sicknesses ranged from minor injuries to suppurating ulcers. Some were dying of tuberculosis. The most horrible case was a man with a wound sustained in a `payback' feud. The man's foot had rotted to the bone after an injudicious spear wound to the leg. It was to have been a mere reproof for a breach of etiquette - insufficient grief at the death of a relative, but it pierced a vital artery and cost the man his foot.

When Murch packed up in early February 1933 to return home he was looking forward to a return trip to the Centre again with Professor Davies. Meanwhile he was under some pressure to get his paintings and drawings finished for the exhibition in May 1933 at the Victorian Society of Fine Arts.

The next trip December 1933-34 was more leisurely. Murch travelled in his baby Austin car, but ran out of petrol near Mount Liebig and walked 60 miles through rugged country where men searching for the missing Southern Cross aircraft had recently starved to death. He was hopelessly lost until meeting Rolf the Aboriginal tracker, one of the experts who had searched for the gold prospector Lasseter Rolf had been sent out from Hermannsburg to find Murch had already dug a water hole. He said resentflly, as if Murch had been late for an appointment, "I have been here all morning in the hot sun waiting for you." On this trip Murch made film records of the activities of the Aboriginal people. He made comparisons with the art and craft works of the Mission community and adults and children in the remote areas around Mt. Liebig. He found a significant difference in styles. At the Mission they were used to drawing at easels and desks and produced side elevated images of familiar animals kangaroos and lizards. In the remoter areas artists used a plan view and worked on the ground in the traditional way. Sequences from the film he made on this trip have been used in the following activities:

1. National Art Gallery. Drawings and paintings by children from Hermannsburg Arukun and Mlabunga. 1994 14 April-20 May

2. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Biennial Conference May ,1994 Aboriginal Art in Contemporary Australia. Children's art at Hermannsburg. The film shows Murch's active participation in the Aboriginal activities. ie.s boxing with one of the lads wearing boxing gloves Murch fashioned from animal skins in the Mission tannery.

3.Shaun McIlraith. Art for the Aborigines..People, August 25 1965. Rex Batterbee and John Gardiner worked in the area in 1932 and Arthur Murch arrived on his first visit the folowing year. In 1934 he returned for a lengthy visit and obtained film footage of the Mission, Murch was unusual because he shared his artistic activities with the Aboriginal people. He carefully documented their art work and took the trouble to study their technical processes, aesthetic values and responses to the environment.

4. Murch 1934 film is in the. Film Archives, Canberra. 5 Also in the Australia Council 1975 film. Meg Stewart, narrated by Daniel Thomas.

BUT WHAT OF THE UNIVERSITY ENERGY PARTY?! Apart from the great adventure and the many paintings it inspired, what if anything had resulted from Professor `Pete" Davies' Energy Metabolism project? I wrote to Sydney University in December 1991. Professor J. Young, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine put me in touch with Dr Maurice Joseph. Arthur who died in September 1989, had never known what resulted from the Rockefeller's funded enquiry. It would not have worried him one way or another, but here was Maurice Joseph one of the original members of the team, very much alive, a Thoracic Physician, still practicing, still interested in all things concerning Hermannsburg. Surely he would know the answer. He had been back there many times since, piloting his aeroplane and taking his grandchildren for holidays.

Through Maurice I met Dr Hugh Barry who had celebrated his 21st birthday at Hermannsburg and become an Orthopaedic Specialist Maurice Joseph, Hugh Barry and John Pockley's son Simon, all met at Maurice's home in 1992. There on the walls, in boxes and photographs were many records of the expedition, but no answers to my questions: Did the Aborigines have a different metabolism? Could they endure extremes of temperature? Less water than Europeans? Only speculations about the aborigines' environmental skills in conserving energy finding water, and not going out in the midday sun.

There seemed to be no definitive answer. However they were able to fill me in on what was happening in January 23, 1933 when Murch, Pockley and Larnach were travelling on camel back to Mount Liebig. The explanations were more ribald than scientific.

It was not an easy job at Hermannsburg they told me. To measure the body wastes of aborigines:- urine, sweat, faeces and a comparing it with their intakes, - fluid and food with subjects. Many could not understand what the object was and did not care anyway. Given the sensitive nature of the tests and the difficulty of communicating with their subjects, they devised methods probably less than ethical. During the night, to get a little sleep, they tied their hands to their subjects, so that they moved they would know the minute "nature called" and would be there with the tin can specimen collector. The tricky part was getting the specimen into the cans. The male circumcision not the usual round trim, but a long sub incision under the penis caused the urine to spread out and trickle in every direction but the can. Some years later they were told by a district nurse in local corroborees a tin can was passed cermoniously around the group. Had the 1933 study entered into local lore?.

Geoffry Dutton wrote "The first artist to go into Central Australia and draw the noble reality of the tribesmen living there was probably Arthur Murch." (10)

After his initial contact Murch did not return to Hermannsburg for another thirty years. In 1964 he made s trip to the Centre with his twelve year old daughter, Michelle. It was financed by John Brackenreg, Director of the Artarmon Galleries who had always been interested in Aboriginal art and welfare. Michelle attended the Mission School while he taught the children and advised on technical training that would advance their art techniques and provide employment. In 1987 he went again to Hermannsburg with Michelle, for the last time. He was 85, suffering from Alzheimer's disease and no longer recognised the country that had inspired so many of his glowing Gosse's Ranges and Mount Liebig paintings.

  1. Doctors to Study Aborigines Adelaide Advertiser, January 4, 1933
  2. Portrait Sir Charles Martin. Basser College, National University, Canberra.
  3. The University Party in Northern Territory. Sunday Sun and Guardian April 2.1933
  4. Strehlow , Journey to Horshoe Bend. Angus & Robertson, 1969
  5. Ann Macintosh, Stanley Lorin Larnach , 1-1-1900-22-8-1978 Arch & Phys. Anthrop. in Oceania. Vol. X111,(2)-(3), 1978
  6. Aust. Biographical Dictionary
  7. Notoryctis found at Ooldea
  8. Foreword exhibition. Vic.Soc. Fine Arts May 1933
  9. University of Sydney, Centenary Book of the Faculty of Medicine 1883-1993
  10. Geoffrey Dutton, Black on White. MacMillan,1974 11. John (Antill) Pockley. Opthomologist (dates to come) journal notes.