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Dr Duncan: A life tragically lost but a state transformed

Grundy Gardens (Park 12)

Did you know that South Australia was the first state in Australia to decriminalise male homosexuality?

photo-icon Dr George Duncan
photo-icon A 1972 newspaper front page
photo-icon A memorial plaque erected near the river to mark the 30th anniversary of Dr Duncan's death

With male homosexuality still illegal in early 1970s Adelaide, the southern bank of the River Torrens in the heart of the city was a meeting spot for men. The bank drops sharply below the tree-lined Victoria Drive on the northern boundary of the University of Adelaide. The area was out of sight from homes north of the river and riverside paths were deserted at night.

On 10 May 1972 at around 11pm, it was on the southern bank that a gang of men confronted Dr George Duncan and another man, Roger James. Both men were thrown into the water but Dr Duncan could not swim and drowned.

Born in Melbourne, Dr Duncan travelled with his parents to the United Kingdom where he earned degrees in arts and law at St John's College, Cambridge, before completing a PhD at the University of Bristol. He returned to Australia to lecture in law at the University of Adelaide in 1972. Less than two months later, Dr Duncan was tragically murdered. He was 41.

Shortly after police retrieved Dr Duncan's body, a TV news crew arrived. Incredibly and shockingly, police placed the body back in the river and dragged it out again for the camera. In the days following his death, rumours began circulating that members of the police vice squad were responsible, but witnesses feared for their lives. Mr James, who suffered a broken ankle in the attack and was taken to hospital by a passing motorist, later refused to identify the attackers. By then, the possibility of police involvement in the case and a broader discussion about attitudes to homosexuality were making headlines around Australia. It took the tragic circumstances of Dr Duncan’s death to challenge attitudes towards homosexuality and create the political will to decriminalise it.

Then Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, authorised police to call in detectives from New Scotland Yard. In October 1972 they delivered their final report, however, it was never released. The South Australia Crown Solicitor decreed no charges would result from this case. This further fuelled the case for change and turned Dr Duncan into a symbol for gay rights advocates. After a first failed attempt in 1972, a second decriminalisation bill was introduced to parliament and passed in 1975.

In July 1985, a former vice squad member, Mick O'Shea, told an Adelaide newspaper that there had been a cover-up to protect three other squad members, who allegedly killed Dr Duncan. In February 1986, the three vice squad members were charged with manslaughter. Only two faced trial, and in September 1988, both were acquitted. A police taskforce on the case was disbanded in 1990, with no prospect of identifying other suspects.

By 1990, decriminalisation of male homosexuality had passed in all states and territories bar Tasmania.

A memorial for Dr Duncan can be found on the southern end of the University Footbridge

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