Woman Clarke, Adrienne (1938 - )

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Academic, Botanist and Scientist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Professor Adrienne Clarke is an Australian scientist whose research contribution to the field of plant genetics, and to commercial ventures that developed from that research, is recognised nationally and abroad. She is a fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and is a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. On Australia Day 2004, she was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia, 'for service to science and academia as a leading international researcher, for the application of economic benefit to scientific discovery, and for mentoring future leaders.' (It's and Honour) She has served as Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria and is currently (2013) Chancellor at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Born in Melbourne, Victoria, in 1938, Clarke began her schooling at a Catholic girls' school in the eastern suburb of Kew where she developed a 'healthy religious scepticism' (Interview). Prodigiously bright, she began school at a very young age, and recalls being singularly unimpressed when, after winning a spelling and writing competition, her prize was a picture of The Last Supper. She did not complete her schooling with the nuns. Her mother, furious at the suggestion that she give Adrienne to the church because she had so many children, moved her to the local state primary school to complete her early education, and then sent her to Ruyton Girls' School for her secondary years.

The transition to secondary private schooling alerted Clarke to the existence of gender inequity. In the first instance, she discovered that she was overlooked by the administrators of the open scholarship scheme she applied through, despite getting better marks than the boys who were successful. Once at school, she then discovered how gendered the curriculum was at Ruyton. She had no complaints about her English and humanities teaching, or her Maths and Physics teaching, courtesy of an inspirational teacher, a Polish refugee and concentration camp survivor named Mrs Regina Yuer. But there was no chemistry taught at Ruyton; forcing her to study independently with the help of Mrs Yuer and a tutor. Furthermore, she was not entirely convinced that she needed to study Mothercraft!. Despite the school's weaknesses, however, she her final exams well enough to gain a place at the University of Melbourne, where she enrolled in a Bachelor of Science and lived at college, in Janet Clarke Hall.

After completing her undergraduate degree in 1958, with a major in biochemistry Clarke proceeded to postgraduate research, examining enzymes that breakdown carbohydrates, graduating with a PhD in 1963. Professor Bruce Stone was an excellent supervisor and mentor, although she says that other male staff members would be up on harassment charges now, if they attempted the behaviour they exhibited towards her and her other female colleagues in the 1960s. Clarke notes, however, that without the support of male superiors, she would not have achieved what she has; most of her key mentors have been men. Nancy Millis at the University of Melbourne was the first woman of any note to provide her with mentoring.

Clarke says that there was absolutely no planning associated with her early education and career; describing it as 'a random walk through life' (Interview). She regards this as a plus; getting broad experience in a variety of laboratories and teaching contexts, in Australia and in the United States, gave her valuable experience in the long term, because it exposed her to different ways of working and leading. Her time in the United States in the 1970s was particularly important for demonstrating how academic scientists had a responsibility to take political stands outside science when times called for it. Working for the Nobel Prize winner, Roger Guillemin, at Baylor College in Texas, at a time when racial and gender inequality informed every social context, was instructive, as he provided inspirational leadership of a big, diverse team during explosive times.

Returning to Australia, via Auckland, New Zealand, Clarke enjoyed a range of teaching and research positions at the University of Melbourne, where she was appointed Director of the Plant Cell Biology Research Centre in 1981 and then Professor in the School of Botany in 1985. Her leadership as a research scientist was recognised when she was appointed Chair of CSIRO from 1991-96. Since then, she has served on the boards of several publicly listed companies, including Alcoa and Western Mining Corporation. In 1998, along with University of Melbourne colleagues Professor Marilyn Anderson, Dr Robyn Heath and Dr Angela Atkinson, Clarke founded the agribusiness, Hexima, in order to commercially develop significant genetic research relating to insect resistance in crops. The leadership Clarke and her colleagues took in their battle with the University of resulted in significant changes to the way intellectual property is now managed at the University.

Clarke has enjoyed leadership positions in academia, the public service, the corporate world, agribusiness and community activism as a member of the Parkville Residents Association. While acknowledging that different sectors might prioritise alternative leadership qualities at different times, she believes that, regardless of the organisation, good leadership starts with a vision that is well communicated to a team that is united in the common aim of realising that vision. When it is realised, the thrill of leadership is exhilarating. In the university environment, which is built on a system of short term funding, however, there are stresses associated with research leadership. Academic leaders feel responsible for the livelihoods of others, and you are constantly looking for continuity. Leadership is both a privilege and a responsibility. In developing it, she advises that we should never under-estimate the importance of diversity of experience, the role of serendipity and the value of data, evidence and good people. Or the importance of 'good friends and fun' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Adrienne Clarke interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 14 July 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/12; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources