In Memorium: Dr Gordon Briscoe AO

Activist Bobbi Sykes (with Gordon Briscoe) addresses a protest at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, July 1972. Image: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation.

A Letter from the Dean regarding Dr. Gordon Briscoe AO’s passing

It is with a heavy heart that I bring you the news of the passing of Dr. Gordon Briscoe AO, who left us on 30 June. Dr. Briscoe was a long-standing Indigenous activist, organiser, researcher, writer, teacher and mentor. He holds a special place in our institution's history. A Pitjantjatjara/Marduntjara man from the Northern Territory, Dr Briscoe was an Honours and Masters graduate from the Department of History at ANU before going on to submit his doctoral thesis in 1997, becoming one of the first Indigenous scholars to be awarded a PhD from an Australian University. His RSSS History thesis focussed on disease, health and healing in Indigenous health in Western Australia and Queensland between 1900 and 1940.

Dr Briscoe played a key role in inspiring the ANU History Program to establish the Centre for Indigenous History and became the Centre’s inaugural Research Fellow in 2003. In 2004 he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to Aboriginal health, legal services and education. His citation reads, “For service to the Indigenous community in promoting access to social justice, improved health, education and legal services, and by raising public awareness and understanding of cultural heritage.”

Dr Briscoe helped form the Aboriginal Progress Association in the late 1950s. He worked for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Legal Service (a body he had helped to establish) in the late 1960s. In 1972, he helped establish a health service for the growing urban Aboriginal population in Sydney. Dr Briscoe was also a field officer for the Commonwealth Office of Aboriginal Affairs, a senior liaison officer in the Department of Health and was, as inaugural assistant director, instrumental in the establishment of Professor Fred Hollows’ National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, where he advised on cultural protocols for working with Aboriginal communities.

In his 2020 autobiography, Racial Folly: A Twentieth Century Aboriginal Family, a forward by Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times noted, “Gordon Briscoe is one of the most remarkable and successful Australians of his generation.” (See Professor Briscoe’s full autobiography here). His legacy extends far beyond his academic achievements as we reflect on his service and admire his story of a life that was filled with challenges, one that left scars but did not stop his fight for optimism and hope for a better society.

We at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences extend our heartfelt condolences to his beloved wife, Norma, their children Aaron, Lisa, and John, as well as the entirety of his family.

Image Source: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation via Wikipedia Commons.