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Joan Burton Paton (1916–2000)

by Libby Robin

This article was published online in 2024

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Joan Paton, by Damian McDonald, 1999

Joan Paton, by Damian McDonald, 1999

National Library of Australia, 24448558

Joan Burton Paton (1916–2000), ornithologist, biochemist, educator, and conservationist, was born on 1 September 1916 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, youngest of five children of (Sir) John Burton Cleland, medical practitioner, microbiologist, and pathologist, and his wife Dora Isabel, née Paton, both South Australian born. When Joan was three her father was appointed professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide and the family relocated to South Australia. After her paternal grandmother died on 31 March 1928 they moved into the historic Cleland family home, Gleeville-under-the-Hills, at Beaumont, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Cleland was educated at Presbyterian Girls’ (from 1977 Seymour) College, where her studies included chemistry and physics. From the late 1920s her nature writing, which often focused on birdlife, was published in the children’s pages of Adelaide newspapers, and in 1931 she won a prize from the Gould League of Bird Lovers for a natural history essay documenting her holiday observations. The whole family were enthusiastic natural historians and conservationists and on long trips always stopped to inspect roadkill. From this practical experience she learned how to skin birds and prepare museum specimens. At sixteen she exhibited some of these to members of the South Australian Ornithological Association (SAOA), whose meetings she had started attending with her father.

Influenced by her father’s training in medicine and microbiology as well as a strong family tradition that saw her mother and siblings take degrees in either science or medicine, Cleland studied biochemistry at the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1937; BSc Hons, 1939; MSc, 1947). Active in student life, she was treasurer for the Adelaide University Science Association and played representative hockey alongside her sisters.

Though reports of her bird sightings had been included in the South Australian Ornithologist since the early 1930s, in 1939 Cleland authored her first article for the journal, a piece on birds spotted during the Ralph Tate Society’s excursion to the Fleurieu Peninsula. From that year until the mid-1960s she was employed at the university as a part-time demonstrator and tutor in biochemistry and general physiology; she also later tutored and demonstrated in biology and was connected to the zoology department. In 1949 she was appointed to the position of biochemist with the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, and by 1950 she was head of its biochemistry department. From November that year to June 1951 she took study leave to travel overseas, visiting institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, and the Postgraduate Medical School, London, to learn more about biochemical research and teaching developments.

On 3 August 1951 Cleland married Erskine Norman Paton, an engineer and apiarist and her adoptive cousin, at St Saviour’s Church of England, Glen Osmond. Their twins, Barbara and David, were born in 1953, followed by another son, James, in 1954. A young family brought new demands as well as opportunities. Paton registered for a bird-banding licence to enable her ten-year-old son David to undertake mist-netting and banding studies. Their backyard was visited by many significant bird species, and their efforts led to two new identifications for South Australia: the Leaden Flycatcher (1964) and the Rose Robin (1967).

From the mid-1960s Paton taught ornithology through the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Adelaide and the Workers’ Educational Association, where she had previously given talks on nutrition. Some of her most influential teaching was with the students at the WEA, to whom she introduced birding through her lectures and excursions, which often involved them in SAOA activities. She delivered her final course in 1999. Her research appeared in numerous papers published in the South Australian Ornithologist, including a major article on the Mallard and the Pacific Black Duck in South Australia in the El Niño year of 1987. Her last publication appeared in 2000.

Throughout her life Paton was a member of various conservation and wildlife groups and committees, including the Fauna Management Co-ordinating Committee for the State Department of Environment and Heritage, which she chaired for almost two decades (1980-98). She was the only woman to be elected SAOA president (1979-82) in the organisation’s first century and in 1990 was made an honorary member; she was also part of the breakaway Adelaide Ornithologists’ Club (president 1991-93; honorary life member 1996) and the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (joined 1968; councillor 1982–87). Elected a member of the Royal Society of South Australia (1970), one of its sections, the Field Naturalists Society of South Australia, presented her with the Nature Conservation award, its highest honour, in 1994. Two years later she was appointed AM for services to ornithology, education, and the environment.

With pale blue eyes and a humble character, Paton was admired as a patient and knowledgeable teacher whose ‘infectious love’ (Lee Parkin in McArthur 2001, 160) of birds inspired many. She died in Adelaide on 28 April 2000, survived by her three children; her husband had died in 1985. Her conservation work spanned much of the twentieth century, building on the strong base of her similarly minded parents. In 2021 she was inducted into the SA Environment Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Achievement award. Her legacy continues through her former WEA students and her family, especially the ecologist David Paton and his wife Penelope (Penny), who have established Bio·R Australia, a conservation initiative that restores woodlands to arrest the decline of native species.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Collier, Roger, John Hatch, Bill Matheson, and Tony Russell, eds. Birds, Birders & Birdwatching 1899–1999: Celebrating One Hundred Years of the South Australian Ornithological Association. Adelaide: South Australian Ornithological Association, 2000
  • Matheson, Bill. ‘Obituary: Joan B. Paton, AM 1916-2000.’ South Australian Ornithologist 33, no. 5 (June 2000): 91—92
  • McArthur, Archie. ‘Obituary. Joan Burton Paton AM, BSc (Hons), MSc.’ Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia Incorporated 125, no. 1 (2001): 157–61
  • Paton family. Personal communication
  • Paton, Joan Burton. Interview by Margaret Black, 12 June 1982. Recording. Australia 1938 oral history project. National Library of Australia
  • Paton, Joan Burton. Interview by Jennifer Barker, 27 October 1989. Recording and transcript. Australian Federation of University Women SA Oral History Project and J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection. State Library of South Australia
  • Paton, Joan Burton. Interview by Libby Robin, 27 March 1999. Papers of Libby Robin, National Library of Australia
  • Paton, Joan Burton. Interview by Penelope Paton, 9 April 1992. Recording. Oral History of Ornithology in South Australia and J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection. State Library of South Australia
  • Reid, Ross. ‘Love of Nature.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 May 2000, 70

Additional Resources

Citation details

Libby Robin, 'Paton, Joan Burton (1916–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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