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Clark, Ellen (1915–1988)

by Jane Carey

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

Ellen Clark (1915-1988), naturalist, was born on 25 March 1915 at Geraldton, Western Australia, third of four children of Scottish-born parents John Clark, car builder, and his wife Maggie, née Forbes. Ellen’s family moved to Melbourne in 1926 when her father, an authority on Australian ants, was appointed entomologist with the National Museum of Victoria. Ellen had helped with her father’s work since childhood and, in 1933— without having completed her school Leaving certificate—she was employed to assist him at the museum. She also began developing an independent research program on Australian crustacea, in the course of which she revised the genus Euastacus. Clark’s most significant scientific contribution was to describe and name many of Australia’s freshwater crayfish (`yabbies’). In 1936 she became the first woman to publish in Memoirs of the National Museum of Victoria, with an article on Australian freshwater and land crayfishes. She published seven other papers from this research and in 1937 was appointed a temporary museum assistant under a grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

According to the Herald, Miss Clark had `that intense and exclusive devotion which distinguishes the born scientist’. Her enthusiasm extended to teaching natural history to children through the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind and, from 1940, writing occasional columns for the Argus and the Australasian. That year, having failed to gain a permanent position, she resigned from the museum. She moved to the Walter and Eliza Hal Institute, where, although formally employed as secretary of the virus department, she continued her work on crustacea, adapting it to serological and immunological fields; she also investigated influenza strains. Clark coauthored several papers on these topics and, with (Sir) Macfarlane Burnet, a monograph, Influenza (1942), which surveyed the history of the virus from the 1889 pandemic in the light of modern knowledge. Having completed her secondary education at night school, in 1941 she enrolled in science at the University of Melbourne, but completed no subjects.

The extent of Clark’s scientific contribution was unusual given her lack of formal qualifications and her sex. While the nineteenth-century tradition of amateur participation in science survived to some extent in museums, and the 1930s and 1940s were a high point for women’s participation in Australian science, both remained largely male domains. As Clark once quipped, `I feel I should have a beard’.

In 1945 Clark left WEHI to work with her father at their home at Box Hill (later Mooroolbark), specialising in the physiology of bull ants. In 1947, after testing the reactions of ants to air travel, she accompanied 4500 specimens on a three-week round-trip to the United States of America. In 1950 she delivered blood samples gathered by the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition from animals on Heard Island to the Serological Museum of Rutgers University, and commenced a year’s study there on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. While in the USA she married Alex Guba, a serologist, and worked as a scientist with Cooper Laboratories (later Cooper Vision). Survived by her husband, she died on 2 May 1988 at her home at Santa Clara, California, and was buried in Mission City memorial park.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1937, p 13
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), `Women’s Magazine’, 30 July 1947, p 3
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 25 Aug 1947, p 6
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 May 1950, p 12.

Citation details

Jane Carey, 'Clark, Ellen (1915–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clark-ellen-12323/text22137, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 17

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