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McKeon, Gwladys Yvonne (1897–1979)

by Patricia Mather

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Gwladys Yvonne McKeon (1897-1979), biologist, was born on 23 August 1897 at Llanelly, Carmarthenshire, Wales, youngest of seven children of George James, schoolmaster, and his wife Frances, née Hart. The Jameses had emigrated to Queensland in 1885 and were revisiting Wales. They returned to the colony in 1899. George was headmaster of Albert State School, Maryborough, which Gwladys attended in 1903-09. Proceeding to Maryborough Girls' Grammar School, she held a Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee scholarship (1910-12), won a Melville bursary (1913), became a prefect and was dux. Another scholarship took her to the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1918; M.Sc., 1920). Studying biology under T. H. Johnston, Miss James was one of the university's few female graduates and among the first trained parasitologists in the State.

Soon after graduating, she was appointed scientist-in-charge of the Tick Biology Station, West Burleigh. The Cattle Tick Dip Committee, Brisbane, chaired by Johnston, operated the facility for the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. James followed meticulous procedures in collecting data. Recording temperature and humidity, she monitored engorged ticks to determine the nature of their egg-laying and hatching, their larval and adult life spans, and the patterns of their distribution.

After the tick station closed, James moved to Nambour in May 1920 and joined the Australian hookworm campaign as a microscopist. One of a team of seven, she was less isolated than she had been at West Burleigh. An attractive, dark-haired woman, 5 ft 3 ins (160 cm) tall, she was responsible for the preparation and dispatch of treatments to patients infected with hookworm. She also became adept at determining the presence of malarial and filarial parasites in human patients and at collecting and identifying mosquitoes.

On 12 June 1923 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Maryborough, Gwladys married Peter Cecil Egbert Connolly McKeon (d.1969), a soldier settler who farmed at Woombye. The McKeons grew fruit—mainly pineapples and bananas—and Gwladys won prizes at the local show for her crayon, pen-and-ink and chalk drawings. The Depression drove them off the land in 1930. They settled at Toowoomba where Cecil managed an office of the State Wheat Board. When he retired in the late 1950s, they shifted to Point Vernon, Hervey Bay. An avid observer, Gwladys studied seaweeds and marine invertebrates, sending her collections from the shallow and intertidal areas of Hervey Bay to specialists throughout Australia. Her handbook, Life on the Australian Seashore (Brisbane, 1966), was lavishly illustrated with her pen-drawings and watercolours. She donated the royalties to Women's College, University of Queensland.

Mrs McKeon was gentle, kind, thoughtful and industrious. After raising five children and helping her husband—at first on their farm, then by designing displays for the Wheat Board—she took up her new professional interests with energy and enthusiasm, making a significant contribution to the study of marine biology. She died on 15 August 1979 at Kedron, Brisbane, and was cremated; her two sons and three daughters survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, Annual Report, 1917-18
  • A10046/1, item A3/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Patricia Mather, 'McKeon, Gwladys Yvonne (1897–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckeon-gwladys-yvonne-10989/text19537, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 6 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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