On This Gay Day: George Duncan is murdered in Adelaide

10th May 1972: Academic George Duncan is murdered in Adelaide 

Dr George Duncan was a law academic at Adelaide University, in 1972 he was attacked and thrown into the River Torrens, where he drowned.

The public outrage over his death lead to the push for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in 1975 South Australia became the first state or territory in Australia to change the laws.

It is widely believed that the people who attacked Dr Duncan were police officers. Duncan was 41 years old at the time of his death and he’d only taken up his post at the university a few months earlier.

The south banks of the river that winds its way though the city were a well known meeting place for homosexual people. On the evening of the 10th of May, Dr Duncan and another man, Roger James, were attacked by a gang of men, both were thrown into the river.

James suffered a broken ankle, but Duncan who was unable to swim drowned. James pulled himself from the river, and with the aid of a passing motorist was taken to hospital.

Shortly afterwards Dr Duncan’s body was discovered. Shockingly his after his body was retrieved from the water, it was put back in the river, so TV cameras could capture his body being pulled out.

In the days that followed rumours circulated that members of the Police Vice Squad were responsible for the attack. At the inquest into the death two police officers refused to give evidence, while the other had resigned from the police force.

In 1985 a former Vice Squad member claimed there had been a cover-up to protect three members of the Vice Squad.  The trio were charged over the death, but only two stood trial in 1998, both were acquitted. In 1990 police announced they saw no prospect of bringing anyone to justice over the death.

Dr Duncan’s death is seen as a significant event that triggered public debate over gay rights in Australia. Within three years South Australia had changed its laws, but it would not be until 1997 that all Australian states changed their laws.

OIP Staff, this post was first published on 10th May 2020. 

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