Woman Harris, Thistle

Biologist, Botanist, Conservationist and Teacher
Alternative Names
  • Stead, Thistle

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Thistle Harris was born in Sydney in 1902, the middle of the three daughters of Charles and Ilma Harris. She was educated at public schools, and at the private girls' school Redlands, in Neutral Bay, before attending the University of Sydney graduating with a science degree in botany in 1924 and a teaching diploma in 1925.

Harris taught science at a number of secondary schools around New South Wales, including in Broken Hill, until 1938, when she began lecturing in biological science at the Sydney Teachers' College, a role she would continue until 1962. Throughout this time, she had been pursuing her passionate interest in Australian flora, and also in 1938 published her first book, Wild Flowers of Australia.

Much of her work as a botanist was conducted in partnership with, and in support of, David Stead, a prominent self-taught naturalist and biologist whom she met through her Redlands' English teacher when she was sixteen. Stead, who was twenty-five years older than her, had seven children from two marriages (the eldest, the novelist Christina Stead, the same age as Harris) was to become her life partner. Unlike Harris, he had no professional qualifications, but was nevertheless very well known in the field of Australian botany and wildlife preservation. He was active in scientific circles, publishing and broadcasting widely, and co-founded the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia (WPSA).

Harris moved into Stead's Watson Bay home in 1939 and the couple married in 1951, after the death of Stead's estranged second wife. He died six years later, but Harris remained in the home until shortly before her death in 1990. She continued her involvement in the WPSA for many years, and was also active in various other environmental organisations such as the Australian Forest League, Junior Tree Wardens and the Parks and Playgrounds Movement. She was a councillor of the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Nature Conservation Council NSW. Her professional direction was very much bound up with his - they were 'the same person', she said (Webb) - but her vast botanic knowledge and passion for conservation, at a time when it meant little to most people, were her own. Her personal and professional expertise in relation to the native plants of Australia gave authority to her role as a leading advocate for protection of the environment. In the years following Stead's death, she devoted herself to a number of causes from the local to the national. These included preventing the building of a bowling club on council land in Woollahra (an area now an established wildlife park, Gap Park), establishing a wildlife sanctuary, Wirrimbirra, on a property near Bargo, New South Wales, in memory of David Stead, and active involvement in the campaign to save Lake Pedder, Tasmania, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Thistle could be single-minded and forceful to a degree that often 'got people's backs up', but she was also a great communicator and educator, with the capacity to enthuse others (Woollahra). Through her teaching and writing, she did a great deal to popularize knowledge about Australian flora, to encourage domestic gardeners to include native plants in their gardens and to persuade a wider audience of the need for conservation measures. She published twelve books about Australian plants and teaching nature studies between 1938 and 1980, and contributed widely to scientific journals and reference books including The Australian Naturalist, Australian Wild Life, Australian Encyclopaedia and Science Wonders of Australia. She was also editor, at various times, of New Horizons in Education, Australian Wildlife and Wildlife Research News. During the 1960s she was awarded the National Trust Natural History Medallion and the National Trust of Australia Medallion Her lifetimes work was recognized by an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Wollongong in 1985 and an OA in 1980.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Thistle Harris interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection, 7 January 1972, ORAL TRC 1/574; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

State Library of New South Wales

  • Papers of David Stead and Thistle Harris, 1887 - 1989, ML MSS 5715; State Library of New South Wales. Details
  • Thistle Harris interviewed by Catherine Johnson in the NSW Bicentennial oral history collection, 1987, MLOH 48; State Library of New South Wales. Details

Published Resources


  • Hooker, Claire, Irresistible Forces: Australian Women in Science, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004. Details
  • Webb, Joan, Thistle Y. Harris: a biography of Thistle Yolette Stead, Suyrrey Beatty and Sons, Sydney, New South Wales, 1998. Details

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Thistle Harris interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection
7 January 1972
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection