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Andree Norma Millar (1916–1995)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published online in 2023

Andrée Norma Millar (c. 1916–1995), journalist, orchidologist, and botanical gardens curator, was likely born on 19 March 1916, daughter of John Weston Manners-Sinclair, journalist, and his wife Marguerite, née De Vigny. Andrée’s own accounts of her life cover the thirty-seven years she was in Papua New Guinea (1947–84), neglecting to reveal her origins and earlier life. She variously recorded her country of birth as New Zealand, New Caledonia, and France. Her death certificate gives her birthplace as Waikumete (probably Auckland), New Zealand, her family having moved there from Noumea shortly before she was born, and then relocating to France. When Andrée was a child, her mother, probably born in New Caledonia, died; her father was posted to a series of countries and she attended international schools. Aged around seventeen, she returned to New Zealand, where she later claimed to have undertaken degrees in arts and science. By the mid-1930s, under the nom-de-plume ‘Norma Sinclair’ and possibly working freelance, she was publishing mainly creative writing pieces in newspapers; her articles appeared in the Auckland Star and New Zealand Herald, the latter calling her ‘a clever young writer from Whangarei’ (1935, 4).

Manners-Sinclair had migrated to Australia by mid-1935, and probably settled at Forbes, New South Wales. There she wrote on various topics for local newspapers; in 1937 she published a feature article in the Sydney Sun about the district’s wheat harvest. Meanwhile, she had become a leader in the district’s Girl Guide movement. On 28 January 1939 she married John William Millar, an engineering student, at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney. By May 1941, when he joined the Citizen Military Forces, the couple were living at Breakfast Creek station, south of Cowra. While John was abroad on active service with the Australian Imperial Force (September 1943 to August 1944 and May to December 1945) she lived briefly in New Zealand and Sydney. In 1947 John took a job as an engineer with Bulolo Gold Dredging, and the family moved to Bulolo, Morobe District, Territory of Papua-New Guinea.

Millar’s interest in the territory’s flora was soon aroused. Forestry workers had presented her with several tree branches on which grew spectacular native orchids—Dendrobium lineale, known locally as ‘Morobe Shower.’ She began travelling through the district to collect orchids for propagation. Eventually her garden included thousands of plant species, and she sent many specimens to the National Botanic Gardens, Lae, for the botanists there to identify. She also paid villagers to collect for her. They nicknamed her ‘longlong misis bilong plaua,’ Tok Pisin for ‘the mad white woman interested in flowers’ (Millar 1994, 7–8).

In 1955 the family, which by then included two New Guinean foster sons as well as a daughter and a son, relocated to a cocoa plantation near Lae, where John became assistant manager. The main reason for the move was to give Andrée access to the botanical gardens and its herbarium. Later that year she joined the chief botanist, John Womersley, on a month-long collecting expedition along the Jimi River in the remote Western Highlands, a region little known to the government’s patrol officers. It was the first of many arduous and often adventurous botanical patrols she undertook over the next fifteen years. In 1956 she joined Womersley’s staff as a technical assistant, and was later promoted to botanical curator. Her knowledge of the orchids of the territory drew orchidologists from around the world. She later wrote that she became ‘a botanical babysitter’ (Millar 1993, 113), guiding botanists on expeditions to locate the species that interested them.

After her husband’s death in 1966, Millar spent more time in the field. With her own children in Australia and her foster sons in the workforce, she was free from the constraints of domestic life. When she was not on patrol, her work at Lae involved recording and identifying Papua New Guinea’s flora, and liaising with herbaria overseas. Her career changed direction in January 1970 when (Sir) John Gunther, the inaugural vice-chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), Port Moresby, persuaded her to join his staff to landscape the university grounds. The dry savannah climate and vegetation imposed a challenge, but with a team of gardeners, she transformed the campus. They created a lush thirty-eight-acre (15 ha) botanic garden with thousands of species sourced from across the territory. In time it became Port Moresby’s only tract of rainforest, with a population of native animals, including tree kangaroos, birds of paradise, and cassowaries. Later named the Port Moresby Nature Park, it became a major tourist attraction. In 1973, when the government took responsibility for managing the gardens, she was appointed director, retaining the position until her retirement in 1984. During the late 1960s she had resumed her journalistic career. She wrote a weekly gardening column for the South Pacific Post and its successor, the Post-Courier. In 1971 she published Gardening with Andree Millar. She often spoke on radio, commenting on environmental issues. A second book, Orchids of Papua New Guinea: An Introduction, appeared in 1978.

Appointed OBE in June 1975, later that year Millar was awarded an Independence medal. The UPNG conferred on her an honorary doctorate of science in 1981. She was also recognised by orchidology organisations, being elected a fellow (1981) of the Orchid Society of South East Asia and receiving an award of honour from the Australian Orchid Council. In retirement she lived for a time at her daughter’s property near Jindabyne, New South Wales, and later settled at Clontarf, near Brisbane. She periodically returned to Papua New Guinea to lead tourist groups, until 1991 when her visa was cancelled and she was banned indefinitely from entering the country; her misdemeanor had been to make gifts of orchids to her tourists. Believing she had done no wrong, she contemplated returning her OBE in protest.

At five feet seven inches (170 cm) tall, with an upright posture, strong build, and forthright manner, Millar was an imposing figure. A forceful personality and gruff voice added to her commanding presence. She was blunt, opinionated, and outspoken, and some thought her paternalistic. Yet many respected her and regarded her with affection, appreciating her warm, maternal interest in the welfare of younger friends and colleagues, European and Papua New Guinean. She died on 5 December 1995 at Kippa-Ring, Queensland, and was cremated; she was survived by her daughter and son. A memorial service in Port Moresby was attended by many friends, including Sir Michael Somare, the country’s inaugural prime minister; he wrote that ‘her heart and love will remain in Papua New Guinea forever’ (Australian Orchid Foundation). An orchid hybrid, Dendrobrium Andrée Millar, was named for her in 1987.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Ainsworth, Jude. ‘In New Guinea, She’s “Misis bilong flower.”’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 3 August 1966, 9
  • Arditti, Joseph, ed. Orchid Biology, Reviews and Perspectives. Vol 6. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994
  • Australian Orchid Foundation. ‘In Memory of Andrée Norma Millar OBE.’ N.d. Accessed 23 June 2022. Copy held on ADB file
  • Griffin, James. ‘Botanist Found Elusive PNG Orchids.’ Australian, 29 January 1996, 17
  • Millar, Roger. Personal communication
  • Millar, Andrée N. ‘Long-Long Misis Bilong Plaua.’ In Orchid Biology, Reviews and Perspectives. Vol. 6, edited by Joseph Arditti. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994, 1–32
  • Millar, Andrée. ‘Orchids and Pigs.’ In Our Time but Not Our Place: Voices of Expatriate Women in Papua New Guinea, edited by Myra Jean Bourke, Susanne Holzknecht, Kathy Kituai, and Linda Roach. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1993
  • New Zealand Herald (Auckland). ‘Young New Zealand.’ 3 August 1935, Supplement 4
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Millar, Andree Norma (1916–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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