Woman Carr, Stella Grace Maisie (1912 - 1988)

Footscray, Victoria, Australia
Botanist and Ecologist
Alternative Names
  • Fawcett, Stella Grace Maisie (Maiden)

Written by Linden Gillbank, The University of Melbourne

Stella Grace Maisie Fawcett was born in 1912, eldest of six children of Ethel and George Fawcett, electrician, in the Melbourne working-class suburb of Footscray. Dux of the local primary school, Maisie attended the then co-educational Melbourne High School and won a university 'free place'. However, having to earn a living, she became a junior teacher at her old primary school and took evening classes in subjects unavailable to her at Melbourne High. A Teachers' College secondary studentship allowed her to begin a Bachelor of Science (BSc) course at Melbourne University in 1932. Maisie majored in botany and, with honours, an exhibition and several scholarships, graduated BSc in 1935 and MSc in 1936. With research scholarships and grants she undertook fungal research in the University botany department until a facial injury prevented further microscope work.

Aware that Maisie participated in expeditions of the University's McCoy Society for field investigation and research, and keen to encourage ecological research in his department, Professor John Turner redirected her research grant to an urgent ecological project - investigating the widespread soil erosion in the catchment of the Murray River's still-filling Hume Dam for Victoria's new Soil Conservation Board (SCB) which lacked staff and funds for fieldwork. Unable to find a male ecologist, Turner convinced the SCB that his female postgraduate could investigate erosion and, in 1941, Maisie moved to the distant pastoral township of Omeo.

Being a city-bred woman, a scientist and a representative of the University and the SCB was not easy in a remote rural community. Maisie overcame entrenched conservative attitudes, wartime shortages, physical exhaustion and challenging terrain and weather conditions. Her experimental area showing the value of contour furrows in arresting gully erosion (washaways) was Victoria's first demonstration area of soil conservation practices. Known as 'washaway woman' or 'erosion girl', she criticised the cattlemen's frequent burning of vegetation and examined the effects of rabbits and stock on indigenous pastures by having eroded areas fenced to exclude animals and documenting vegetation changes in the enclosures.

Maisie became the SCB's first research officer in 1944. By then she was noticing signs of erosion in the free summer pastures of the Bogong High Plains. Any consequent siltation would threaten the expensive Kiewa hydro-electric scheme then under construction. So, again she established enclosures to determine the effects of stock. Representing the SCB, Maisie was the only woman on the Bogong High Plains Advisory Committee which determined the permissible number of cattle and length of their stay each summer. After her 1949 return to Turner's department to teach plant taxonomy and ecology, her high plains research continued until she and her husband, fellow senior lecturer, Dr Denis Carr, left Melbourne in 1960. Then Maisie left ecology for eucalypt taxonomy and morphology.

Maisie Fawcett overcame social disadvantage and grasped opportunities that took her to the forefront of a field rarely embraced by women. When most of Australia's few ecologists were male, Maisie undertook ground-breaking ecological research that revealed unequivocally the damaging effects of cattle on the vegetation and soils of a major Australian water-catchment. She challenged cattlemen's claims by showing that shrubs, not grasses, regenerated in cattle-eroded grasslands and predicted that grasses, not shrubs, would regenerate under senescing shrubs - eventually confirmed when 1939 fire-regenerated shrubs senesced after Maisie's death in 1988.

Published Resources


  • Carr, D. J., A book for Maisie : celebrating the life and work of S.G.M. Carr nee Fawcett, pioneer Australian alpine ecologist, 1912-88, Pearce, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2005. Details
  • Hooker, Claire, Irresistible Forces: Australian Women in Science, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004. Details

Book Sections

  • Gillbank, Linden, 'Into the land of the mountain cattlemen. Maisie Fawcett's ecological investigations on the Bogong High Plains', in Farley, Kelly (ed.), On the edge of discovery: Australian Women in Science, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993, pp. 133 - 154. Details

Newsletter Articles

  • Carr, D. J., 'Obituary - Stella Grace Maisie Carr (1912 - 1988)', Australian Systematic Botany Newsletter, vol. 58, 1989, pp. 21 - 27. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • 'Plots on the High Plains', The Age, 8 February 1966. Details

Online Resources

See also