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Winifred Mary Curtis (1905–2005)

by Heather Rossiter

Dr Winifred Mary Curtis was hung in the National Gallery in a recent exhibition of famous Australian Scientists. There were not many women in the show and none like Dr Curtis: 91 years old and still working in her profession.

In September 1995 TV-satellite connection took her image from Hobart, Tasmania to Newcastle, NSW, where, at the ANZAAS Congress, she was awarded the Mueller Medal. Technology has revolutionised communication in her lifetime. When she was a child in post-Victorian London horse-drawn buses, carts and hansom cabs still ran about the streets. Winifred attended six schools of various degrees of challenge, one of them in India. Her father was 'in wood' as a civil servant employed at the War Office. He talked to Winifred about trees. Her mother encouraged a garden. Her parents entertained her thoughts of a career, an unusual idea for a girl child in those days. Her female cousins stayed at home and hoped for marriage.

In 1924 Winifred entered University College, London, to study Botany, Chemistry, Maths and Physics where she walked away with most of the prizes. Recently, when asked about the honours she has received in a lifetime of scholarship, in reply to the question 'What was the sweetest recognition you ever received?' Dr Curtis said, 'I would have to go back to my student days. I was very glad to win a scholarship in Botany from the University of London, .. open to all botanists who liked to apply for it. This was a competitive examination, theory and practical, taken by second year students and that gave me a lot of pleasure.'

Winning the scholarships, including one open to women in all faculties which provided the opportunity for research, taking the prizes was one thing; getting a job was another. In two years of applying for jobs she was repeatedly told, 'You have all the qualifications but we are appointing a man.' So Winifred enrolled at the Cambridge Teachers College, got her Teachers Certificate and began work at a Girls High School in Manchester. Weekends and evenings she continued her research in the basement of the University on Spartina townsendii, a grass then invading the tidal mud flats of southern England. After a few years she was given an appointment in London and continued a 'moon-lighting' life, now trudging up Highgate Hill after midnight on her return from research in a laboratory at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. For this she was awarded a Masters degree in 1939.

After her father retired the tight-knit three-member Curtis family decided to emigrate to a climate warmer than that of England. They arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1939, together.

And together with considerable possessions. Two part-time jobs were found and one was in the University: demonstrator in Botany and Zoology, only the second woman to be appointed to the academic staff of the university. Winifred had her foot in the door. She turned her attention from polyploidy in Spartina and the anatomy of dandelions to the unique Tasmanian flora. In late 1942 she was studying chromosome numbers in Dianella when she was offered an Assistant Lectureship in Biology. Now Miss Curtis held the only full-time female appointment on the staff and it was on the same conditions of appointment as the men. Her career was on its way.

In 1944 she published the first record of polyploidy in an Australian native plant (in Pultenaea juniperina) and the work was incorporated into a thesis for a London PhD degree, conferred in 1950. In 1951 Dr Curtis was appointed Senior Lecturer. But Dr Curtis was meantime learning more subtle lessons about discrimination. When, in 1948, women staff member numbers reached five, the University cut their salaries to 90% that of men. Money is scarce, they said, and the men have greater need. Indeed. The injustice was brought before two staff meetings. The men (with greater need and greater numbers) voted against it.

Not until 1955 did the Royal Commission into the University and its affairs correct the inequity.

It would not be appropriate to ask if similar inequity accounts for Dr Curtis never being given a Chair, for which administrative skills and outstanding scholarship are generally considered the requirements. In 1947 Miss Curtis began a long period as Acting Head of Department, terminated when Professor Barber was appointed. In the next two decades there were similar long periods when Dr Curtis acted during interregna. In 1956 she was one of the first two appointments to a new grade at the University, Reader, equivalent to the former status of Associate Professor. By this time Dr Curtis had published 14 scientific papers, her book Biology for Australian Students was in its third Edition and Part 1 of The Student's Flora of Tasmania was out. She had maintained contacts with Kew, having returned there for study interludes during short sabbaticals, had visited and studied at the Sydney and Melbourne Herbaria, attended the VII International Botanical Congress in Stockholm in 1950 and, in 1954, the IX Congress in Montreal when awarded a Carnegie Travel Grant. It must not be forgotten that she had been teaching, face to face, from 9am to 6pm, five days a week, for much of this stressed post-war period.

In December 1966, after 27 years at the University, Dr Curtis took early retirement and her career really took off. In her last decade as Reader she had published five more papers, produced a new edition of Biology for Australian Students, got out Part 2 of The Student's Flora of Tasmania and was deeply involved in a new challenge.

In the decade 1966-1976, now Honorary Research Fellow at the University, seven papers and seven volumes appeared, and her published work submitted to the University of London earned her a DSc degree in 1968. The Student's Flora of Tasmania, Part 3, published in 1967, was jostling for space in Dr Curtis' life with an exciting project, The Endemic Flora of Tasmania, a project conceived and sponsored by the retired British diplomat Lord Talbot de Malahide who owned an extensive grazing property in eastern Tasmania and cultivated Tasmanian natives on his estate in Ireland. Margaret Stones, an Australian botanical artist employed at Kew, had been commissioned to produce a series of paintings of Tasmanian endemic plants. Dr Curtis was invited to write concise descriptive and ecological notes on the specimens. Inevitably she, always an intrepid collector of fresh plant material for her classes and her researches, was involved, together with many other passionate botanists, in gathering material from remote, inaccessible places. After identification the plants were packed and flown to London, hurried to Kew and painted while still fresh by Margaret. Lord Talbot died suddenly after Part 4 appeared, but the project was continued by his sister, the Hon. Rose Talbot.

The final volume, Part 6 of this beautiful work, was published in 1978, but work has not yet finished on The Student's Flora of Tasmania. A revised edition of Part 1 appeared in 1975, co-authored by Dennis Morris, who also co-authored Part 4b, published 1994 (Part 4a came out in 1980), and further revision of Parts 2 and 3 is being undertaken by the partnership at the present time. There are changes in the distribution of species to be recorded and, with better access to the west coast, new species are constantly being brought in which must be described, named and included. Also the classification is being changed from Bentham and Hooker to A. Cronquist, a big job.

When asked about species loss Dr Curtis replied, 'We lament the loss of species from places where we used to know them some years ago. For example, the road that now leads to Rokeby went up a hillside that was carpeted with orchids. It's now built on. Inevitably plants will disappear from places where we knew them. But I've been trying to think and I can't name any plant that has been completely exterminated. Some have become rare because of the inevitable spread of housing. We still have to struggle for the conservation of certain areas. There is considerable effort by various societies to preserve places where some interesting species still exist. And that is all we can hope for at the present time.'

Dr Curtis, awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1987 by the University of Tasmania, continues her work on Mondays and Fridays on the maintenance of the Herbarium, an invaluable, historical collection that derives from Mr Leonard Rodway who published the first Tasmanian Flora in 1903.

When it was suggested that Dr Winifred Mary Curtis in 1996 is too busy to worry about gender issues, the terse response was made: 'not so'.

Recently Dr Curtis had a mishap. As she recounts it: 'I set out on my 3-wheel electric scooter to Lindisfarne Village. The scooter strongly resents being asked to make a right-hand turn on a slope. It threw me off and fell on top of me. I must have strong bones ... my legs function and I am reconciled to waiting for bruises to fade.'

A redoubtable woman. A woman of our time.

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Citation details

Heather Rossiter, 'Curtis, Winifred Mary (1905–2005)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Winifred Curtis, n.d.

Winifred Curtis, n.d.

State Library of Tasmania, PH40-1-205

Life Summary [details]


15 June, 1905
London, Middlesex, England


14 October, 2005 (aged 100)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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