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Margaret Sylvia Gilliland (1917–1990)

by Patrick Buckridge

This article was published:

Margaret Sylvia Gilliland (1917-1990), biochemist, was born on 8 September 1917 at Grenfell, New South Wales, second child of Robert Dugald Bertie, a Sydney solicitor, and his wife Kathleen, née Crommelin, both born in New South Wales. Charles Bertie was her uncle. Margaret’s mother died early; her father spent some years as a planter in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and she lived for much of her girlhood with two unmarried aunts in Sydney. While studying biochemistry at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1939), she developed a lifelong interest in fast cars and at 20 drove a super-charged MG Magnette in a Sydney-to-Melbourne sports car rally. She was engaged briefly to a racing-car driver, but on 24 October 1942 at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, Sydney, she married Alexander Forbes Gilliland, a `Tobruk rat’ recently returned from North Africa. They had two daughters and a son.

Alexander was discharged from the army in 1946 and the family settled at Sherwood, Brisbane. After his death in 1958 Gilliland moved to Taringa, close to the University of Queensland, where she had taken a job as a demonstrator in biochemistry. Senior demonstrator from 1957, for the next six years she organised the large second-year practical classes. In 1962 she was awarded an M.Sc. for a thesis on aspects of bacterial metabolism, and next year was promoted to lecturer. Suffering from severe bronchial asthma, possibly triggered by contact with solvents used in her research, she spent most of 1964 on extended sick leave.

Known as `Mrs G’ to her students, Gilliland was a tall (5 ft 8 ins or 173 cm), slim, angular woman with a sharp, intelligent face, twinkling eyes and a wry smile. In 1965 she resumed her administrative and teaching responsibilities, but allowed her laboratory-based research to languish, partly through fear of a physical relapse. None the less, she won an American Association of University Women graduate fellowship, sufficient to fund a year’s study leave in 1969 at the University of California, San Diego (La Jolla), United States of America. There she pursued her work on bacterial metabolism and pigmentation, experiencing only a brief recurrence of asthma. With a growing interest in science communication, she also studied large-class teaching strategies at several institutions in California.

Gilliland was an active member of the Queensland Association of University Women. Early in the 1970s she became something of a radical. She was outraged by the French nuclear-testing program in the Pacific and in 1973 helped to plan the Yooringa protest group’s expedition to Muroroa Atoll. In a letter to the vice-chancellor, (Sir) Zelman Cowen, she wrote that she had `verbally deplored such happenings long enough’, and that `women should be represented on this boat’. However, the proposed trip into the testing zone was cancelled because of problems with insurance cover. As the QAUW representative on the council of the University of Queensland Union (which she chaired in 1975 and 1977), she prosecuted students’ concerns vigorously, mounting campaigns for the appointment of a university ombudsman, for part-time student jobs on campus, and for free on-site buses.

In 1976 Gilliland’s second period of study leave initiated the most important phase of her career. Passionate about social justice and the need to address global poverty, in the Philippines, at the East-West Center, Hawaii, and at the University of California, Berkeley, she investigated nutritional education and schemes of intervention. In 1978, supported by the Australian Development Assistance Bureau, she set up a master’s degree in community health (nutrition) at the University of Queensland and was seconded to act as director of the course. The ambitious, multi-disciplinary program, originally designed for community health workers in the Philippines and Australia, later extended its reach to Thailand, Malaysia, Fiji and parts of Africa, and graduated some two hundred students from around the world. Gilliland was the organising genius and tireless servant of the program but her contribution was not deemed sufficient for promotion until 1982, when ADAB paid her full salary (as senior lecturer and then associate professor). Her university appointment was renewed annually until she retired in 1988.

Optimistic, energetic and determined, with a capacity for helpless laughter, Gilliland loved parties and practical jokes. She was devoted to her grandchildren, enjoyed books, the ballet and the opera, and had a strong if informal belief in a spiritual dimension. Survived by her three children, she died on 18 May 1990 at Karana Downs, near Ipswich, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Federation of University Women (Queensland), Newsletter, June 1990, p 8
  • Gilliland staff file (University of Queensland Archives)
  • Gilliland papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Patrick Buckridge, 'Gilliland, Margaret Sylvia (1917–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 12 July 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]

Alternative Names
  • Bertie, Margaret

8 September, 1917
Grenfell, New South Wales, Australia


18 May, 1990 (aged 72)
Karana Downs, Ipswich, Queensland, Australia