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Phyllis Margaret Rountree (1911–1994)

by Katrina Dean

This article was published:

Phyllis Margaret Rountree (1911–1994), microbiologist and bacteriologist, was born on 13 January 1911 at Hamilton, Victoria, elder child of Victorian-born parents James Henry Rountree and his wife Elsie Gertrude, née Hodgson. Phyllis’s Irish grandfather, James Hughes Rountree, had been a pharmacist and several of his children—including two of his five daughters, Ella Hughes and Jean Grace, and Phyllis’s father—followed his profession. Jean later attended the University of Melbourne (MB, BS, 1929) and practised as a doctor. ‘They were a most splendid family of aunts,’ Phyllis recalled, ‘I think they had a great influence on me’ (Rountree c. 1991, 1). Like her aunts, she attended Alexandra Ladies’ College, Hamilton. Later, she boarded at Tintern Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Hawthorn. In 1927 she was accepted into the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1930; MSc, 1931; DSc, 1950). She had hoped to study medicine, but her father protested that she was too young; instead, she studied zoology and bacteriology, the latter under H. A. Woodruff, director of the bacteriology department.

Awarded a three-year research studentship by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1931, Rountree moved to Adelaide to work on soil salination at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute. Her entry into a ‘field of science usually monopolised by men’ (News 1931, 4) caused a minor sensation in the Adelaide press. She was described as ‘smartly dressed’—‘“there is no reason why science and smart frocks should be strangers,” she said’ (News 1932, 5); ‘brilliant’ (Mail 1932, 1); and without marriage plans—‘there is too much interest attached to my present career to begin another’ (Mail 1932, 1). Although her research was exemplary, she was not offered a permanent position at the end of her studentship. She reflected that, had she ‘been a man, they probably would have found me something’ (Rountree c. 1991, 3).

Returning to Melbourne in 1934, Rountree worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research under Lucy Meredith Bryce and (Sir) Frank Macfarlane Burnet. Her participation in Bryce’s research on staphylococci and Burnet's research on psittacosis gave her ‘a passport to go almost anywhere’ (Rountree c. 1991, 3). Accepted into the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she gained a diploma of bacteriology in 1937. She was recalled to Melbourne to care for her ailing father, and took a position as bacteriologist at St Vincent’s Hospital the following year. Finding the work too routine, she left in 1943 and, after working briefly as a Commonwealth Food Control tester, joined the staff of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. As research bacteriologist (1944–61) and then chief bacteriologist (1961–71), she became expert on Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph), a group of bacteria that cause infections such as septicaemia, osteomyelitis, food poisoning, and the suppuration of wounds. A breakthrough came during an outbreak in the 1950s known as the ‘nursery epidemic’ (Hillier 2006, 733); resistant to most antibiotics, including penicillin, the virulent strain caused deaths among newborn babies in Australia and overseas. Rountree used the relatively new technique of phage typing (mastered during a study visit to London in 1947) to track the bacteria’s progress. She proposed a range of non-pharmacological solutions for controlling staphylococcal infections, including the use of cotton blankets and regular hand washing, which proved effective.

From 1943 Rountree had attracted the attention of authorities for her ‘communist tendencies’ (NAA A6119). Active in the communist-dominated Australian Association of Scientific Workers and Federation of Scientific and Technical Workers during the war, she was suspected of recruiting ‘members for the Australian Communist Party from [among] the professional and academic classes’ (NAA A6119). The Commonwealth Investigation Service monitored her movements until the late 1950s, when it noted that she ‘had completely given up all association with the Party’ (NAA A6119).

Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1945, Rountree served on its council and as vice president (1953–54). A founding member of the International Subcommittee for Phage Typing of Staphylococci (established 1953), she served as chair from 1966 to 1982. She also chaired (1967) the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Society for Microbiology. Following her retirement in 1971, she continued to consult at the Royal Prince Alfred and became an honorary research associate at the University of New South Wales, writing papers on the history of microbiology. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney in 1987. Tall (five feet eleven inches or 180 cm) and broad shouldered, she wore glasses in later life. Unmarried, she died on 27 July 1994 at Darlinghurst and was cremated. Her work on phage typing contributed to the transformation of bacteriologists from laboratory technicians to specialists in infection control; yet, reliant on male patronage, her career opportunities and rewards were limited.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Hillier, Kathryn. ‘Babies and Bacteria: Phage Typing, Bacteriologists, and the Birth of Infection Control.’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 4 (2006): 733–61
  • Mail (Adelaide). ‘Women Pry into Secrets of Science.’ 20 February 1932, 1.
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 1380/REFERENCE COPY
  • News (Adelaide). ‘Girl MSc of 20 Specialised in Soil Research at Urrbrae.’ 30 October 1931, 4
  • News (Adelaide). ‘Frocks and Science: Women MSc Says They Need Not Be Strangers.’ 3 November 1932, 5
  • Rountree, Phyllis M. Phyllis Margaret Rountree, Honorary Research Associate in the School of Microbiology, the University of New South Wales, 1971–: An Interview Conducted by Kerry Gordon, edited by Victoria Barker. Kensington, NSW: University Interviews Project, University of New South Wales Archives, c. 1991
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 6482, Records of Rountree, Phyllis Margaret

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Citation details

Katrina Dean, 'Rountree, Phyllis Margaret (1911–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 23 July 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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