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Nancy Atkinson (1910–1999)

by Emma McEwin

This article was published online in 2022

Nancy Atkinson with her research assistant  Martin Hansen

Nancy Atkinson with her research assistant Martin Hansen

Dr Nancy Atkinson (1910–1999) papers, MSS 006, 5, Series 2. Courtesy of Rare Books & Special Collections, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.

Nancy Atkinson (1910–1999), bacteriologist, writer, and winemaker, was born on 9 March 1910 at South Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Stella Charlotte Smart and her husband Ralph Arthur Atkinson, commercial traveller. A natural academic, Nancy excelled at Oberwyl (dux 1925), a private boarding school for girls at St Kilda. She then studied science at the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1931; MSc, 1932) and became one of the first students in Australia to major in the discipline of bacteriology. Taking advantage of the employment opportunities offered by the emergence of new areas in the biological sciences, she worked as a research scholar and demonstrator at the university.

In 1937 Atkinson moved to Adelaide after securing an appointment as assistant bacteriologist to Albert Platt at the South Australian Government Laboratory of Bacteriology and Pathology, soon afterwards incorporated into the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science (IMVS). Two years later she took up a concurrent position (also under Platt) as part-time lecturer in the new department of bacteriology at the University of Adelaide. During Platt’s absence abroad from mid-1939 to late 1940, Atkinson was acting head of both the department and the IMVS. She continued to fulfil these roles following his resignation in 1942. On 24 January that year at St John’s Church, Adelaide, she married Irving McDonald Cook, company manager; they would have one child before divorcing amicably in 1950.

During World War II, research at the IMVS focused on discovering substances to fight infectious diseases. Atkinson (as she continued to be known professionally) was the first person in Australia to make penicillin when she successfully isolated a new antibiotic, penicidin. Moving away from mould antibiotics, she began researching antibacterial substances in fungi, native plants, and essential oils. Her other main area of research was salmonellas. She established one of only three salmonella typing laboratories in the world, where many new strains were described, including Salmonella Adelaide (isolated in 1943).

At the university Atkinson taught with the support of only one or two demonstrators. Traditionally, bacteriology was studied in medicine, but she developed and delivered undergraduate and postgraduate courses in that subject for the faculties of agricultural science, dentistry, and pharmacy, and later designed a course in industrial microbiology. A public health advocate, she spoke regularly to community groups on food safety matters arising from her research. She was also noted for mentoring female scientists, including Jessica Mawson and Gwen Woodroofe. Relinquishing her post at the IMVS, she took on the full time role of reader-in-charge of the department of bacteriology in 1950. The next year she was appointed OBE. On 25 January 1952 she married Andrew Benko, an architect, at the Office of the Principal Registrar, Adelaide.

In 1957 Atkinson was awarded a doctorate for her published work on antibiotics and salmonellas. When the position of chair of microbiology at the university was advertised in 1959, she felt that she was an obvious and deserving candidate, having built up the department over more than twenty years. She had, she argued, been carrying out, in all but name, ‘all the functions of a Professor of Microbiology’ (Atkinson 1958–59). However, her application was unsuccessful, and this was undoubtedly the biggest disappointment of her career. She continued at the university, working in the division of oral biology from 1968.

With her husband, Atkinson shared an appreciation of art. She became an amateur collector and, under her married name, wrote Art and Artists of South Australia (1969) and The Art of David Boyd (1973). In 1973, in preparation for mandatory retirement at sixty-five, she purchased a winery at Chalk Hill in McLaren Vale, a decision partly inspired by her knowledge of chemistry, as well as by her contact with brewers and winemakers through her industrial microbiology course. She made the wines, many of which won prizes, and her husband greeted customers at the cellar door. Both were of short stature: he is remembered as hardly clearing the winery counter, while she sat low in her car, barely able to see over the dashboard.

Atkinson’s adaptability and resilience, together with the support of two liberal-minded husbands, allowed her to negotiate a measure of freedom and success in the male-dominated fields of academia and winemaking. Among her many achievements, she had helped to form the Australian Society for Microbiology (president 1962–64, life member 1971). Her legacy is recognised by the ringing of the ‘Nancy Atkinson Bell’ to open the society’s annual meeting. In her spare time she enjoyed golf and annual trips to the Victorian snowfields. She was widowed in 1997 and in her final years suffered from dementia. Survived by her son, she died on 21 December 1999 at Holden Hill and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Woman Scientist’s Successful Career as Bacteriologist.’ 5 December 1945, 3
  • Atkinson, Nancy. Application for the Chair of Microbiology at the University of Adelaide, 1958–59. Dr Nancy Atkinson (1910–1999) Papers, MSS 0065, Series 4. Rare Books & Manuscripts, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide
  • Cook, Jonathan. Interview by the author, 17 April 2016
  • Fenner, Frank, ed. History of Microbiology in Australia. Canberra: Brolga Press for the Australian Society for Microbiology, 1990
  • Love, Tony. ‘Scientific Pioneer.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 January 2000, 70
  • McEwin, Emma. ‘Nancy Atkinson, Bacteriologist, Winemaker and Writer.’ Australian Journal of Biography and History, no. 1 (2018): 59–77
  • Nicholson, Bernard, ed. Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science 50th Anniversary Review, 19381988. Adelaide: Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, 1988
  • Rood, Sarah, and Katherine Sheedy, eds. ‘A Culture of Learned Professionals: Celebrating 50 Years of the Australian Society of Microbiology.’ Special Issue, Microbiology Australia 30, no. 3 (2009)

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Emma McEwin, 'Atkinson, Nancy (1910–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/atkinson-nancy-32455/text40256, published online 2022, accessed online 17 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Nancy Atkinson with her research assistant  Martin Hansen

Nancy Atkinson with her research assistant Martin Hansen

Dr Nancy Atkinson (1910–1999) papers, MSS 006, 5, Series 2. Courtesy of Rare Books & Special Collections, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.