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Carr, Stella Grace Maisie (1912–1988)

by Linden Gillbank

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Stella Grace Maisie Carr (1912-1988), botanist, was born on 26 February 1912 at Footscray, Melbourne, eldest of six children of Victorian-born parents George Henry Fawcett, electrician, and his wife Ethel May, née Ward. In her parents’ and grandmother’s gardens, on nearby salt-marshes, and in nature study classes, Maisie developed an early love of plants. Dux of Footscray’s Hyde Street State School in 1924, she attended Melbourne High School. Instead of accepting a university free place, she worked as a junior teacher in her old primary school and studied zoology and geology at night at the Austral Coaching College.

In 1932, with one of only twelve Teachers’ College secondary studentships, Fawcett entered the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1935; M.Sc., 1936); she gained both degrees with first-class honours in botany and joined Teachers’ College hockey and swimming teams. In the university’s botany department she demonstrated to practical classes. With a succession of research scholarships and grants, and initially supervised by Ethel McLennan, she studied Australian coral fungi and microscopic fungal and nematode diseases of plants. She also participated in the annual field-trips of the McCoy Society for Field Investigation and Research. A severe head injury in 1940 precluded microscope work and her research grant was renewed in 1941 for ecological investigations.

Later that year Professor John Turner arranged for Fawcett’s appointment, as a university research officer, to investigate soil erosion in the catchment of the Hume Reservoir for the Soil Conservation Board of Victoria. Living at Omeo, she monitored vegetation in two eroded areas that were fenced to exclude rabbits and stock. She covered long distances on horseback, investigated gully erosion and tested introduced grasses and fertilisers in pasture experiments. Her extensive, unpublished report documented widespread degeneration of vegetation and loss of soil due to over-grazing. She also contributed to Leonard Stretton's 1946 royal commission into forest grazing. The locals called her `Washaway Woman’ and `Erosion Girl’. A journalist commented on her `strong independence’ and noted her sturdy build and `healthy weatherbeaten appearance’.

Erosion on the Bogong High Plains posed a siltation threat to the Kiewa hydro-electric scheme. Appointed the SCB’s first research officer, albeit temporary, in 1944, Fawcett set out to monitor the effects of grazing on the high plains. In January 1945 she selected for fencing a large area on the upper slopes of Rocky Valley that contained a range of vegetation—moss bed, snow grass, heath, scrub and woodland—and marked off reference plots of vegetation inside and outside the exclosure. The State Electricity Commission of Victoria later fenced one snow-grassed acre (0.4 ha) adjacent to one unfenced control acre on the edge of Pretty Valley. Each summer for a decade Turner organised a university team to record the vegetation in Fawcett’s plots. She was the SCB representative, and sole woman, on the Bogong High Plains Advisory Committee, which from 1946 determined the permissible number of cattle and the length of their stay each summer.

Fawcett accepted a temporary lectureship in Turner’s botany department in 1949. Annoyed by the inadequacy of published floras, she organised the preparation of a botanical key, The Families and Genera of Victorian Plants (1949). She lectured on plant taxonomy and ecology to science and agriculture students, becoming senior lecturer in 1952. As the former beauty of Pretty Valley returned to its fenced acre, she and Turner documented the botanical changes in two papers (Australian Journal of Botany, 1959) that provided the first published scientific evidence of the destructive effects of grazing on the vegetation and soils of Victoria’s high country.

On 9 February 1955 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Hampton, Fawcett married Denis John Carr, a fellow senior lecturer in the botany department. Their collaborative morphological and taxonomic work on eucalypts continued in Belfast (1960-67), where she was an honorary research fellow at the Queen’s University, and then in Canberra, as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. With Turner’s university teams she re-surveyed the high plains plots in 1966 and 1979; she prepared a report on the region for the Victorian Land Conservation Council in 1977.

Maisie Carr was a perfectionist who loved books, art and music and had a `dry and very Australian sense of humour’. Long interested in Australian history, with Denis she wrote articles for and edited Plants and Man in Australia and People and Plants in Australia (both 1981). A heavy smoker, she suffered from chronic bronchitis. She died on 9 September 1988 in Royal Canberra Hospital and was buried with Baptist forms in Gungahlin cemetery. Professor Carr subsequently provided funds to have her accumulated ecological data published. Her scientific legacy includes ecological ideas, some confirmed only recently, and a number of Australia’s oldest vegetation records, exclosures and reference plots.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Gillbank, `Into the Land of the Mountain Cattlemen’, in F. Kelly (ed), On the Edge of Discovery (1993) and for sources
  • D. J. Carr (comp), A Book for Maisie (2005)
  • Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter, Mar 1989, p 21.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Linden Gillbank, 'Carr, Stella Grace Maisie (1912–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carr-stella-grace-maisie-201/text22075, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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