Woman Burbidge, Nancy Tyson (1912 - 1977)


Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
Botanist and Conservationist

Written by Dorothy Erickson, Independent Scholar

Nancy Burbidge was a leading botanist and conservationist. She was born in Yorkshire in 1912 to the Reverend William Burbidge and his wife Mary Simmonds, not long before her father was appointed to the parish of Katanning in Western Australia. The family arrived in the parish in 1913 and her mother opened a school in the rectory. This later became Kobeelya, the Anglican girls' school. Nancy was educated here and at Bunbury High School. She proceeded to the University of Western Australia where she gained her Bachelor (1937), Masters (1945) and Doctor of Science degrees (1961). She was a conscientious and dedicated student. Awarded a scholarship of a free passage to England by a shipping company, she spent 1939-40 at the Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew in England where she revised an Australian genus. Returning to Perth she studied the taxonomy and ecology of Western Australian plants before taking up a position at the Waite Institute in South Australia, where she worked on regenerating native pasture.

On her appointment as a systemic botanist in the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's plant industry division, she relocated to Canberra in 1946. Here she set about organising and expanding the plant collection and was soon appointed curator Herbarium Australiense. She edited the journal Australasian Herbarium News until secondment for 1953-4 to Kew Herbarium. Here she photographed and indexed Australian type specimens and gathered a huge amount of information. She wrote a stream of journal articles, some of which contributed towards her Doctorate of Science and a series of books, among them Australian Grasses, Dictionary of Australian Plant Genera and several meant for the general reader on the plants of the Australian Capital Territory. She illustrated many of the publications with her own drawings. Her parents retired to live with her in 1958. In 1967 she became senior principal research scientist at the CSIRO and directed the Flora of Australia project sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science.

Burbidge was an ardent conservationist and lobbied for the setting up of protected areas such as Tidbinbilla Fauna Reserve. A founding member of the National Parks Association of the ACT, she campaigned to have Namadgi National Park delineated.

A long time member of the Australian Federation of University Women she supported a range of causes including scholarships for Aboriginal women and a hall of residence for women at the University of Papua New Guinea. She was also a member of the Royal Society of NSW, which awarded her the Clarke Medal for her achievements in taxonomic botany and ecology. As an active member of the Royal Society of Canberra she was one of the initiators of the Australian Systemic Botany Society. She was awarded an Order of Australia in 1976 and died in Canberra in 1977. She is commemorated in the Nancy T. Burbidge Memorial, an amphitheatre in the National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.

Published Resources

Online Resources