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Nancy Tyson Burbidge

See also the Nancy Burbidge Memorial.

Nancy Tyson Burbidge was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1912, and came to Australia with her parents as a young child. After graduating in science at the University of Western Australia she was awarded a scholarship from the University to spend eighteen months at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, in 1939 and 1940. At this time she undertook the first of several studies of Australian grass genera. The results of these studies contributed to her Master of Science degree from the University of Western Australia.

During the next three years, Nancy Burbidge continued her studies of the Western Australian flora, both in the field and in the herbarium. In 1943 she was appointed assistant agronomist at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute in Adelaide and began working on the regeneration of native pastures in the arid and semi-arid regions of South Australia.

A turning point in her career came when she was appointed to the new position of systematic botanist in the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in 1946. Apart from organising and extending the herbarium collections and providing an identification service for colleagues in the CSIRO, she initiated what was to be a continuing feature of her career - the provision of assistance to all Australian plant taxonomists, wherever located. This was done mainly through her work for the Systematic Botany Committee of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, and as liaison officer at Kew in the early 1950s.

The period from 1955 to 1970 was perhaps the most productive in Nancy Burbidge's career. During this time she published her Dictionary of Australian Plant Genera, a comprehensive paper on the phytogeography of the Australian region, and studies of the plant groups Nicotiana, Sesbania and Helichrysum. During the latter part of this period she completed the Flora of the Australian Capital Territory with Max Gray, also of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, and three regional volumes of Australian Grasses, all beautifully illustrated with her original line drawings. In 1961 she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Western Australia.

Later in her career Dr Burbidge became increasingly involved in the preparation of a new Flora of Australia, a project of keen interest to her ever since it was first mooted many years before. Nancy Burbidge was the obvious scientific leader for this project and in 1973 she was relieved of her responsibilities as Curator of Herbarium Australiense to enable her to work full time on it.

Dr Burbidge was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1976 in formal recognition of her services to botany in the widest sense.

In addition to her many scientific publications Dr Burbidge wrote about botany in simple terms for the interested person. Many non-botanists had their first introduction to the wonders of the Australian flora through Nancy Burbidge's writing and will remember her with gratitude for awakening their interest with articles in the National Parks Association ACT Bulletin under the title `Eyes or No Eyes'.

It might be thought that such an outstanding record of botanical achievement would have left little time for other activities. Such thought would greatly underestimate both Dr Burbidge's energy and wide range of interests. She took part in, and often led, the activities of many cultural and scientific societies and associations, which united to develop the concept of a memorial to her in the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

One project deserving special mention was Dr Burbidge's keen involvement in the proposal for a large national park in the southern part of the Australian Capital Territory. Unfortunately it was not until 1979, two years after her death on 4 March 1977, that the Gudgenby Nature Reserve became a reality.

Dr Burbidge was generous in sharing her time and abilities in the interests of science, conservation, education and international friendship. It is fitting that she is commemorated in the Australian National Botanic Gardens where children and adults may gain a better understanding and appreciation of the Australian natural environment and native flora.

Much of the biographical detail in this article is based on the obituary of Dr Burbidge written by Mr W. Hartley and published in Brunonia Vol. 1 No. 1. Permission to use this information is acknowledged.

photo Updated , Jim Croft (