Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Campbell (Mollie) Dawbarn (1902–1982)

by Roger Cross

This article was published:

Mary Campbell (Mollie) Dawbarn (1902-1982), biochemist and nutritional physiologist, was born on 5 January 1902 at Ballarat, Victoria, elder child of English-born Gilbert Joseph Dawbarn, a lecturer at the local school of mines, and his second wife Mary Isabella, née Macdonald, born in Victoria. The family moved to South Australia in 1907 when `Mollie’s’ father took up a post at the Wallaroo smelter. She won a scholarship to Methodist Ladies College, Adelaide; she was dux in 1918 and next year came second in the higher public examination of South Australia. Winning a government bursary, she entered the University of Adelaide (B.Sc. Hons, 1923; M.Sc., 1928; D.Sc., 1958). She began her working life in 1924 as a demonstrator for Professor Thorburn Robertson in the department of physiology and biochemistry, while researching the composition of a synthetic diet suitable for mice.

In February 1927 Dawbarn joined the Animal Products Research Foundation of the University of Adelaide, which was associated with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s division of animal nutrition. Working under the direction of the charismatic Hedley Marston for her entire career, she first carried out chemical analyses for a survey of the iodine content of the thyroid glands of sheep. Marston’s criticisms could be most hurtful and Dawbarn was especially vulnerable. Contemporaries have suggested that she worshipped him and hence did not marry. Granted study leave in 1933-34, she travelled to Europe to work at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, and the University of Strasbourg, France.

During World War II Dawbarn investigated the nutritional requirements of the Australian armed forces, in particular, problems of supplying vitamin C to troops fighting in areas remote from sources of fresh fruit and vegetables. Marston thought highly of her research, telling CSIR’s chief executive officer Sir David Rivett in 1944 that she was `the only professional nutritional person in Australia who is really well based scientifically’. In 1948 he asserted that she was the leading authority on human nutrition in Australia, having perfected methods for the estimation of thiamine (vitamin B1) in bread. Her work on producing an assay for B12 was perhaps her most important achievement; in 1950-51 she carried out further research into the vitamins of the B complex at the University of Cambridge, England. In 1954 she officially transferred to the division of biochemistry and general nutrition, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, and was appointed a principal research officer.

Dawbarn took early retirement in 1963 and over the next few years travelled to some exotic locations, including South America. An expert photographer, she produced her own black-and-white enlargements. She was an active member of the Adelaide Lyceum and Soroptimist clubs. Treasurer (1965-69) of the South Australian Ornithological Association, she enjoyed bird-watching trips into the outback. A vibrant personality, she had a wide circle of friends. Throughout her life she was modest about her achievements; she said that she could `never have got the D.Sc. without [the] unflagging help’ of the young women researchers whom she had trained. She died on 24 May 1982 in Adelaide and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Animal Products Research Foundation, Annual Report, 1924-29, 1933-35, 1940-46
  • The News (Adelaide), 10 Oct 1932, p 1
  • series A8520, item PH/DAW/ 5, parts 1 and 2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dawbarn papers (University of Adelaide Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Roger Cross, 'Dawbarn, Mary Campbell (Mollie) (1902–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 January, 1902
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


24 May, 1982 (aged 80)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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