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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burbidge, Nancy Tyson (1912–1977)

by George M. Chippendale

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Nancy Tyson Burbidge (1912-1977), botanist and conservationist, was born on 5 August 1912 at Cleckheaton, Yorkshire, England, only daughter of William Burbidge, clergyman, and his wife Mary Eleanor, née Simmonds. Appointed to the Anglican parish at Katanning, Western Australia, William brought his family to Australia in 1913. Eleanor opened a primary school at the rectory and in 1922 founded the Katanning (Kobeelya) Church of England Girls' School. Nancy was educated there, and at Bunbury High School and the University of Western Australia (B.Sc., 1937; M.Sc., 1945; D.Sc., 1961).

Awarded a prize by a group of shipping companies of a free passage to England, Burbidge spent eighteen months in 1939-40 at the Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, during which she revised the Australian species of the genus Enneapogon. She returned to Perth and for the next three years studied the ecology and taxonomy of Western Australian plants. In 1943 she became assistant-agronomist at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, Adelaide, where she worked on regenerating native pasture in arid and semi-arid regions of South Australia. Appointed systematic botanist in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's division of plant industry, Canberra, she commenced duty on 11 October 1946. Her initial task was to provide an identification service, but she was soon organizing and expanding the division's plant collection and her position was changed to curator, Herbarium Australiense. As secretary (1948-52) of the systematic botany committee of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, she edited Australasian Herbarium News until her secondment in 1953 to be Australian botanical liaison officer at the Kew herbarium, London. There, she photographed and indexed type specimens of Australian plants before resuming her Canberra post in 1954.

The results of Burbidge's work were seen in a stream of journal articles, among them 'The Phytogeography of the Australian Region' which appeared in the Australian Journal of Botany in June 1960: this important monograph contributed to the award of her D.Sc. She published The Plants of the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, 1963, with Max Gray); a Dictionary of Australian Plant Genera (Sydney, 1963); Australian Grasses, in three volumes (Sydney, 1966, 1968 and 1970); Flora of the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, 1970, again with Max Gray); and she prepared the compilation Plant Taxonomic Literature in Australian Libraries (edited by A. McCusker, Sydney, 1978). Burbidge's The Wattles of the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, 1961) and The Gum Trees of the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra, 1963) were intended for the general reader. She illustrated many of her publications with her own drawings. A competent administrator as well as a talented botanist, in 1967 she was promoted senior principal research scientist, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. From July 1973 to March 1977 she directed the Flora of Australia project which was sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science.

Burbidge had been a founding member (1960) of the National Parks Association of the A.C.T. Her work as its secretary, committee member (for eleven years), president (for two terms) and leader of numerous weekend walks helped the N.P.A. to become the Territory's main conservation body. The series of drawings accompanying her 'Eyes or No Eyes' column in the NPA Bulletin were a charming feature of that periodical. Prominent in efforts to create protected areas, she lobbied for the establishment of the Tidbinbilla Fauna Reserve and the recreational area at Gibraltar Falls. She led the campaign which was eventually to result in the delineation of Namadgi National Park. Burbidge's love of the bush was reflected in her encouragement of the publication, Mountains Slopes and Plains (Canberra, 1975), a composite work by N.P.A. members.

She was a long-time member of the Australian Federation of University Women and president (1959-61) of its Canberra association. As president (1957-58) and international secretary (1961-68) of the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association, Burbidge supported a range of causes, including scholarships for Aboriginal women and moves to establish a women's hall of residence at the University of Papua New Guinea. The Royal Society of New South Wales awarded her the 1971 (W. B.) Clarke medal for her achievements in taxonomic botany and ecology. Active in the Royal Society of Canberra, she was one of the initiators of the Australian Systematic Botany Society and in 1973 established the Committee of Heads of Australian Herbaria to co-ordinate projects and procedures. She was appointed A.M. in 1976.

As a student, Miss Burbidge had been conscientious and dedicated to the subject that was to be her life's work. In maturity she balanced a puckish sense of humour with a capacity for sudden anger over 'anything she considered to be unjust or shabby'. She died of carcinomatosis on 4 March 1977 in Woden Valley Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery. Her love of nature and her contribution to Australian botany are commemorated by an altar-frontal, showing banksias and honey-eaters, in St Michael's Anglican Church, Mount Pleasant, Perth, and by the Nancy T. Burbidge Memorial, an amphitheatre in the National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Popham (ed), Reflections (Perth, 1978)
  • N. Stewart, As I Remember Them (Perth, 1987)
  • Australian Federation of University Women (Sydney), Newsletter, no 62, May 1977
  • Brunonia, 1, no 1, 24 Feb 1978
  • National Parks Association of the ACT Inc, NPA Bulletin, 17, no 3, Mar 1980
  • Canberra Times, 5, 9 Mar 1977, 10 Sept 1980
  • CSIRO Archives, Canberra
  • private information.

Citation details

George M. Chippendale, 'Burbidge, Nancy Tyson (1912–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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