Woman McLennan, Ethel Irene (1891 - 1983)

Williamstown, Victoria, Australia
Victoria, Australia
Consultant, Mycologist, Plant pathologist and Teacher

Written by Linden Gillbank, The University of Melbourne

Born in 1891, Ethel Irene McLennan was the second child of Eleanor and George McLennan, warehouseman, in Williamstown, Victoria. Later living in Hawthorn, Ethel attended Tintern Ladies' College and the University of Melbourne. She gained botany exhibitions in her final school year and three university undergraduate years. In 1914 Professor Alfred Ewart had his bright third-year student also teach first- and second-year botany. Graduating Bachelor of Science (BSc) in 1915, lecturer McLennan succeeded two earlier women as Ewart's only academic colleague and one of his trickle of postgraduate researchers.

McLennan's research thesis revealing the surprising nutritional importance of a micro-fungus to its ryegrass host, earned her Melbourne University's 47th Doctor of Science (DSc) degree. Conferred in 1921, it was the first Australian DSc awarded for mycological research. McLennan was the fourth woman to graduate DSc in Melbourne and, apparently, Australia. In 1923 Dr McLennan was one of Melbourne University's first senior lecturers, and, in 1931, the second woman appointed associate professor. An International Federation of University Women fellowship in 1925 allowed McLennan a year in England. At Rothamsted Agricultural Experimental Station and London's Imperial College of Science and Technology, she developed her enduring interests in soil-dwelling fungi and the physiology of host-parasite relationships.

Back in Melbourne, McLennan became the second woman to win the prestigious David Syme Prize for scientific research (for her Rothamsted work on soil fungi), investigated Tasmanian hop and pea diseases for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and accepted responsibility for University plant pathology. From 1927, she taught undergraduate plant pathology and mycology and supervised postgraduate investigations of diseases of flowers and fruit, trees and timber, sometimes for the Forests Commission of Victoria or CSIR/O. Botany post-graduates were usually women, and McLennan's involvement in university and other women's groups, made her more than a role-model.

After Ewart's sudden death in 1937, McLennan nearly became Australia's first female professor. Having headed Ewart's department during his earlier absences, Acting Professor McLennan had a comprehensive knowledge of botany and the Australian flora and a substantial research record. And she had taught almost every undergraduate course in botany. The exception was plant physiology. The Melbourne selection committee for the new professor of botany and plant physiology agreed that McLennan was the best Australian applicant. However, when a Cambridge plant physiologist was selected in London, they (some with huge reluctance) recommended him. While angry disappointment surged across the University, McLennan planned Ewart's memorial window and then welcomed Professor John Turner.

Until her retirement in 1956, Dr Mac, as she was widely known, continued to teach and undertake and supervise research in plant pathology and mycology. Then, after 15 post-retirement years in charge of the University Herbarium, she resigned, ending her six-decade association with the University which, in 1982, the year before she died, awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws. The substantial legacy of this trailblazing plant pathologist includes the University of Melbourne's fungal-rich herbarium and library, her scientific publications and her students' ideas and investigations.

Published Resources


  • Gillbank, Linden, From system garden to scientific research: The University of Melbourne School of Botany under its first two professors (1906 - 1973), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, 2010. Details
  • Hooker, Claire, Irresistible Forces: Australian Women in Science, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004. Details
  • Selleck, R. J. W., The shop: The University of Melbourne 1850 - 1939, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2003. Details

Book Sections

Journal Articles

  • Parbery, D. G., 'Ethel Irene McLennan 1891 - 1983: Pioneer teacher of mycology and plant pathology in Victoria', The Australasian Plant Pathology, vol. 18, no. 3, 1989, pp. 47 - 56. Details
  • Turner, John, 'Associate Professor Ethel McLennan, DSc (Melb), Hon. LLD (Melb) 1891 - 1983', The University of Melbourne Gazette, vol. 39, no. 4, 1983, pp. 12 - 13. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources