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Stead, Thistle Yolette (1902–1990)

by Joan Webb

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Thistle Yolette Stead (1902-1990), biologist, educator and wildlife preservationist, was born on 29 July 1902 at Mosman, Sydney, second of three daughters of English-born Charles Thomas Harris, newspaper employee, and his Sydney-born wife Ilma Richardson, née Rokes.  Thistle’s father was general manager of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1929-33.  She attended Mosman Superior Public and North Sydney Girls’ High schools and Redlands, Neutral Bay.  Gaining the Leaving certificate in 1920, she studied science at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1924; Dip.Ed., 1925).

Constance Le Plastrier, a teacher at Redlands, was an important influence.  In 1918 she took her young student to a meeting of the Naturalists’ Society of New South Wales, where Harris met David George Stead; a lifetime of commitment to both Stead and the natural environment followed.  Stead’s pioneering work from 1909 with the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia became Harris’s passion also; she served over the years as secretary and president of the society, and editor of its journal.

Harris taught science at Murwillumbah Intermediate (1925-28), Broken Hill (1929-30) and St George Girls’ (1930-38) high schools.  At Broken Hill she met Albert Morris, an experienced amateur botanist who introduced her to the flora of the western regions and led her to an appreciation of the importance of ecology.  She established a naturalists’ society there but had a more lasting impact on St George Girls’ High School and the Kogarah district, where she initiated a campaign to plant native trees and shrubs.  In July 1939 the Sydney Morning Herald carried an enthusiastic article on her 'Vision of a Garden City'.

Resident in Sydney from August 1930, Harris became actively involved in many conservationist organisations.  She joined the council of the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia and was active in the Australian Forest League; she compiled and edited the publication Junior Tree Warden for many years.  In March 1938 she took up a lecturership in biology at Sydney Teachers’ College; she continued until the end of 1961, remembered by many as an inspiring lecturer.  David Stead conceived the idea for her first publication, Wild Flowers of Australia (1938), which was hailed by some critics as a 'watershed'.  She wrote the text, assisted by local botanists; the paintings of Adam Forster (1848-1928) provided the coloured illustrations.  During the 1940s Harris undertook studies in education at the University of Melbourne (M.Ed., 1945) by correspondence.

David Stead was 41 and the father of seven children (including the writer Christina Stead), when he met Harris.  They formed a close relationship.  David’s second wife, Ada, left the family home in 1931 but there was no divorce.  In 1939 Harris made a bold move in deciding to live with him.  Ada died in May 1951 and on 30 June David and Thistle married in a civil ceremony in their home at Watsons Bay.  David’s death in August 1957 motivated the Wild Life Preservation Society, with some encouragement from his widow, to establish the Wirrimbirra Sanctuary at Bargo, south of Sydney, as his memorial.  Thistle Stead spent her time and financial resources to make Wirrimbirra a centre for research and education.  She was assisted by members of the David G. Stead Wildlife Research Foundation of Australia, which had been set up in 1963.  Concern about the future of Wirrimbirra led Thistle and the foundation in 1966 to place the property in the hands of the National Trust of Australia (NSW), with a lease to enable the foundation’s purpose there to be carried out.

Becoming well known through her books (published using the name Thistle Harris), Stead was a passionate advocate for conservation, ahead of her time in stressing the importance of education about the environment and the value of growing Australian plants in suburban gardens.  The Teaching of Nature Study (1954), Naturecraft in Australia (1956)—for bushwalkers, teachers and students—and Gardening with Australian Plants (3 vols, 1977-80) helped to raise awareness in the general community about Australian flora and fauna.  The Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria awarded her its natural history medallion for 1963.

Stead loved the outdoors and often spent weeks camping in remote areas.  Mount Kosciuszko was her special domain and every summer she visited the alpine areas to study the flora.  Concern about damage caused by excessive grazing and engineering works in this fragile region led to lobbying by Stead and the Wild Life Preservation Society and other groups for more stringent controls.  In her book Alpine Plants of Australia (1970) she included species that she had studied during several trips to Tasmania.  During a 1967 trip to Tasmania she was active in the 'Save Lake Pedder' campaign.  She undertook a postgraduate diploma in landscape design at the University of New South Wales (DLD, 1970).  In late 1970 she gave evidence to the House of Representatives’ select committee on wildlife conservation, chaired by E. C. M. Fox.  She also made a submission, with eight recommendations for future action, in February 1972; the committee’s report was released in October.

In 1980 Stead was appointed AM.  The University of Wollongong conferred on her an honorary D.Sc. in 1985.  She had unusual physical and mental energy and could be aggressive, but was sincere and tenacious about causes in which she believed.  A generation of teachers profited from her practical approach to the teaching of science; she believed in the 'hands-on' approach and in encountering the natural world beyond the classroom.  Having lived in the Stead family home until shortly before her death, she died on 5 July 1990 at Summer Hill; her body was given to the University of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Webb, Thistle Y. Harris (1998)
  • Wildlife Research News, September 1990, p 3
  • H. de Berg, interview with T. Harris (ts, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • D. Stead and T. Harris papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Joan Webb, 'Stead, Thistle Yolette (1902–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stead-thistle-yolette-15520/text26732, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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