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Our legend

Saturday, 23rd July, 2011

REVERED: BH’s “Young Tom” Brown REVERED: BH’s “Young Tom” Brown

BH identity, the late Tom Austen Brown, has been likened to fictional movie adventurer Indiana Jones after gifting almost $9 million to the University of Sydney for the study of Australian prehistory.

The generous bequest is believed to be the biggest single donation of funds to the University in more than 20 years.

Mr Brown, who passed away in 2009, left half of his estate to the University and his bequest will help start a new, exciting chapter in Australian archaeology and anthropology that could never have been achieved without such generosity.

“This is a huge coup and is easily the best news in the field of Australian prehistory for more than a decade,” University of Sydney Chair of Archaeology Dr Ted Robinson told the BDT.

“Interest and research in Australian heritage will develop in leaps and bounds thanks to Tom Austen Brown.

“This unbelievable gift will open up a new dimension in Australian prehistory and Tom’s legacy will be remembered in perpetuity,” Dr Robinson continued.

The University will use the funds to create the Tom Austen Brown Chair of Australian Archaeology - a position that already has experts in the field buzzing with excitement.

“We have already had expressions of interest in the job and we haven’t even advertised the position,” Dr Robinson explained.

“It will be an incredibly attractive role and I would expect applications from America, Europe and New Zealand as well as domestically.

“We expect the position will be filled by one of the most qualified experts in the world. 

“This is the first endowed chair of Archaeology in Australia’s history and his family should be very proud knowing that Tom’s name will be forever revered in the field he dedicated so much of his life to,” Dr Robinson added.

“It is also quite possible - and would be rather fitting - that these funds could be used to conduct research work in and around Mutawintji National Park in the area Mr Brown knew so well.”  

 Mr Brown’s sister Betty, who moved to Adelaide from BH with her husband Vito Porich in 1978, said her brother would “disappear for months at a time” on his adventures.

“Tom would head off on these incredible tours and he wrote a daily diary that he would send on to either Mum or me so we had some idea of where he was,” Betty recalled.

“He was so meticulous with everything. He had a mapping pen with Indian ink and all his discoveries were recorded precisely.

“There were no shades of grey with Tom ... everything was black and white,” she laughed.

Tom Brown was born March 2, 1925 and is the only son of Mitchell Austen and Vera Doris Brown.

Mr Brown became known as “Young Tom” when he worked at his father’s law firm “Austen Brown, Thompson” so as not to be confused with his uncle, Tom J Brown who was also a solicitor and partner in the business.

Australian prehistory absorbed much of his spare time and for more than half his life Mr Brown - who never married - roamed the outback in a quest to explore Australia’s ancient Aboriginal past.

“Here was a guy who drove around the outback researching Aboriginal heritage and while he may not have been chased by monsters or have to negotiate booby-trapped caves there are parallels with Indiana Jones,” Dr Robinson mused.

“It would have been pretty rugged out there in the wilderness, taking to the road in his campervan to explore remote ancient Aboriginal sites.”

“In those days nobody was really interested in these things,” Mrs Porich added.

“In the final year of his law degree Tom studied some anthropology and then when he started working with the law firm many of the outback clients were aware of his interest and invited him to explore their properties.”

While collecting grinding stones and stone tools, Mr Brown’s reputation drew the attention of the National Parks and Wildlife Service who dispatched Professor Richard Wright, a Uni of Sydney archaeologist, to assess his collection.

“When Tom was told that by removing artefacts he was compromising the archaeological record he started doing things properly so as not to damage the cultural heritage - he was a remarkable individual,” said Dr Robinson.

After retiring from full-time work Mr Brown enrolled in an arts degree at the Uni of Sydney, majoring in archaeology and after graduating in 1974 he then completed a masters, in anthropology, at Washington State University.

During his lifetime Mr Brown gave $1.8 million to the Uni of Sydney and in his will he bequeathed $6.9 million more which will now enable the university to significantly expand knowledge of Australia’s ancient past.

“It will allow us to purchase basic infrastructure for field work such as vehicles and survey equipment, laboratories and the like,” Dr Robinson said.

“I can also foresee major spin-off effects such as international conferences on Australian prehistory and publications of the highest standard.”

Professor Duncan Ivison from the Uni of Sydney described the bequest as “an extraordinary gift that will transform the study of prehistory”.

“Understanding the deep past of the cultures that have inhabited this continent will play a vital role in helping us imagine what our future might be,” he said.

The bequest will create the Tom Austen Brown Grants Program for Prehistory which will foster research and education in anthropology and archaeology. It is likely to result in honours and postgraduate research scholarships and other support for Indigenous students.

“Tom Austen Brown should be remembered as a classic Australian,” Dr Robinson said.

“He was a modest man who blazed a trail in a very quiet fashion, never looking or asking for any recognition.

“To be able to recognise him now and into the future is very fitting and will help make all his efforts even more worthwhile.”


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