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Dame Margaret Blackwood (1909–1986)

by Jane Carey

This article was published:

Dame Margaret Blackwood (1909-1986), botanist and geneticist, was born on 26 April 1909 at South Yarra, Melbourne, second of three children of Tasmanian-born parents Robert Leslie Blackwood, schoolteacher, and his wife Muriel Pearl, née Henry. (Sir) Robert Blackwood was Margaret’s elder brother. Her mother had been a teacher before marriage, and from 1920 her father was classics tutor and sub-warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne. Growing up in `a scholarly environment’, she attended Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, which emphasised academic attainment and encouraged scientific studies. Her biology teacher, Dorothy Ross, was inspiring.

Margaret’s father, who `didn’t think the university was a place for women’, decreed a conventional domestic destiny for his daughter. His death in 1926 left her both free to choose her own future and needing to support herself. She qualified at the Associated Teachers’ Training Institution, then taught at Lowther Hall and Korowa Church of England Girls’ Grammar schools. In 1930 she enrolled in science at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1938; M.Sc., 1939), completing the course part time while continuing to teach. A scholarship assisted her to write a thesis on die back of Pinus radiata for her master’s degree, which was conferred with first-class honours. She then became a research scholar and demonstrator, working on plant cytology and genetics. The 1930s were a high point for women’s participation in botany, and she found herself in a research environment in which women, notably Associate Professor Ethel McLennan, were prominent.

World War II began before Blackwood had established herself at the university but she barely hesitated before volunteering to serve. On 15 March 1941 she enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. Commissioned twelve days later, she performed cipher duties and formulated policy and procedures for training recruits, mainly at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne. She gained quick promotion, reaching the rank of temporary wing officer in January 1945. Her appointment ended on 8 January 1946. Returning to the university, she transferred to the new Mildura branch campus as lecturer in biology and dean of women. From her quarters, known as `Mothering Heights’, she maintained a firm but genial rule over her charges.

After a five-year break from science, Black-wood faced an uncertain academic future, dependent on further training. In 1948 she proceeded to Britain on a Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme scholarship and entered the University of Cambridge (Ph.D., 1954), where she worked with David Catcheside on the B-chromosomes in Zea mays. Back in Melbourne, she was appointed at last to a permanent lectureship, becoming one of only two lecturers in genetics at the university.

Blackwood published little (five papers in 1953-68) and was promoted slowly, becoming a reader just before she retired in 1974. Her commitment to botany was nevertheless obvious from her obsession with tree planting, the detailed descriptions of local fauna she included in her travel diaries, and her refusal of job offers that would have taken her away from research. A Carnegie travelling scholarship (1958-59) had enabled her to study at the University of Wisconsin. There she met the American maize geneticist and future Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, whom she described as `my “Pin up” girl’.

Blackwood was first chairman (1961-75) of the council and a founder fellow (1966) of Janet Clarke Hall, and first female fellow of Trinity College (1981) and the Genetics Society of Australia. She chaired (1957-58) the co-ordinating committee of Soroptimist Clubs of Australia and New Zealand and was a member of the Lyceum Club and the Australian Federation of University Women. In 1964 she was appointed MBE and in 1981 promoted to DBE. She was elected a member of the council (1975) and the first female deputy-chancellor (1980) of the University of Melbourne, which awarded her an honorary LL D in 1983.

Dame Margaret had been one of the few women of her generation to pursue a scientific career. She believed firmly in the equality of the sexes. As a geneticist she knew that only one of the forty-six chromosomes is different, therefore `innate abilities and characters are common to both men and women’. In 1975 she convened the university assembly’s working group on the position of women on campus, which found that their status was no higher than it had been in 1951. Despite this conclusion, she repudiated modern feminism, believing that `it’s no good having a chip on your shoulder. You don’t get anywhere’. Blackwood died on 1 June 1986 in East Melbourne and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Kelly, Degrees of Liberation (1985)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (1988)
  • J. A. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia (1991)
  • J. Carey, Women and Science at the University of Melbourne (1996)
  • J. Thomson, taped interview with M. Blackwood (1984, Australian War Memorial)
  • Blackwood papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Jane Carey, 'Blackwood, Dame Margaret (1909–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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