Francis Edgar Williams, anthropologist of Papua – Fact sheet 235

Francis Edgar Williams was born in Adelaide in 1893. He graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1914 with first class honours in Classics. He was named the university’s Rhodes Scholar for 1915, but the outbreak of World War I prevented him taking up the scholarship. He immediately joined the First AIF and served in France and the Middle East. In 1921 he completed a Diploma in Anthropology from Oxford University.

In 1922 Williams was appointed Assistant Government Anthropologist in Papua, the former British colony administered by Australia from 1906. He became Government Anthropologist in 1928, a position he held until his death in 1943. Williams devoted his years in Papua to detailed studies of traditional Papuan society. He undertook extensive field work, spending long periods living among the people in native villages. Several of the reports he prepared for the territorial administration were subsequently published by Oxford University Press. As part of his field work Williams compiled a large photographic collection, mainly taken by himself, that recorded many aspects of the village societies he was studying.

His anthropological studies gained him further academic qualifications (including a Doctorate in Science from Oxford in 1941) and recognition within the scientific community that included several awards during the 1930s. In 1939 he served as president of the anthropology section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS).

With a Pacific war imminent in May 1941, Williams was given responsibility for air raid precautions in Port Moresby. He subsequently re-enlisted in the Army, and served with military intelligence preparing manuals on Papua for the Allied Geographical Section. While serving as a liaison officer with the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) in 1943, he was killed in an aircraft crash on the Owen Stanley Range.

Records holdings on F E Williams

Records relating to F E Williams held by the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial include records on his appointment as Assistant Government Anthropologist (and later Government Anthropologist) for Papua, papers written by him about the native peoples of Papua, and files of his wartime Army service. Examples of these records are listed below.

Records held by the National Archives about F E Williams

Anthropologist of Papua – Records held in Canberra

War service – Records held in Canberra

Records held in Sydney

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemCaptain Francis Edgar Williams – claim for war damage, Port Moresby–Darwin1942–46SP24/1, M/W/21

Records held by the Australian War Memorial about F E Williams

Collection references

Photographs taken by F E Williams

Williams was an accomplished photographer and, as part of his observations in the field, took hundreds of photographs that depicted the lifestyle, customs and habits of the people of Papua. The National Archives in Canberra holds several of these collections, including one comprising over 700 images (A6003). Details of series are listed below. You can identify individual photographs using PhotoSearch. Digital copies of many of these photographs are also available on PhotoSearch.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019