Francis James Gillen

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Francis James Gillen
Francis James Gillen (B-38781).jpeg
Born(1855-10-28)28 October 1855
Died5 June 1912(1912-06-05) (aged 56)
Scientific career
FieldsAnthropologist, ethnologist

Francis James Gillen (28 October 1855 – 5 June 1912) was an early Australian anthropologist and ethnologist.

Life and career[edit]

Gillen was born at Little Para, South Australia. He entered the public service in 1867, and was employed as a postal messenger at Clare. He was transferred to Adelaide in 1871 where his duties also included telegraph operation. In 1875, he became involved in the construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and was appointed the Alice Springs post and telegraph Station Master in 1892. At the time Alice Springs was part of South Australia and Gillen, who by virtue of his office held the collateral positions of Special Magistrate and sub-Protector of Aborigines, was effectively the administrator of central Australia.[1]

During his time at Alice Springs he became involved with Aboriginal Australians and in 1894 assisted the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia. Following the expedition he met W. Baldwin Spencer. They wrote The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), though it has been claimed that the authorship was mostly Spencer's.[1] The German anthropologist Moritz von Leonhardi was very much inspired by this publication. Later, together with Carl Strehlow Leonhardi partly opposed Gillen’s and Spencer’s theses. In 1900 Gillen was elected president of the anthropological section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held at Melbourne. He enjoyed the experience very much. To Spencer's regret Gillen had been transferred from Alice Springs to Moonta in 1899, but in 1901 he was given leave by the South Australian government to join Spencer in an expedition which took them up to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their journey led to the publication of The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). Gillen's final fieldwork endeavour with Spencer was to Peake in South Australia where they camped for a number of weeks gathering further information on Arabanna people for inclusion on their 1904 publication. Gillen was also listed as a co-author of Spencer's The Arunta published in 1927.

Gillen remained at Moonta until July 1908 when he became postmaster at Port Pirie. In that year Spencer was hoping to arrange to go with him to Western Australia, but Gillen's health began to fail and so it was not possible. In 1911 he was weakening physically, and he died on 5 June 1912. His wife, formerly Miss Besley of Mount Gambier, three daughters and two sons survived him. A brother, Peter Paul Gillen, who was for many years a member of the South Australian House of Assembly, predeceased him.


The "Friends of Gillen" were formed in 2009 and had their first inaugural meeting in 2010. Membership of the group is unknown.

Varanus gilleni, a species of Australian monitor lizard, is named in his honor.[2]


  • Mulvaney, John; Morphy, Howard; Petch, Alison (editors) (1997). My Dear Spencer: The Letters of F. J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer. South Melbourne: Hyland House. 554 pp. ISBN 978-1864470222.


  1. ^ a b Mulvaney DJ (1983). "Gillen, Francis James (1855–1912)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 31 July 2016.
  2. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Gillen", p. 101).

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