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Patricia Marietje (Pat) Thomas (1915–1999)

by Alessandro Antonello

This article was published online in 2023

Patricia Thomas, c1995

Patricia Thomas, c1995

Thomas family collection

Patricia Marietje Thomas (1915-1999), parasitologist, was born on 13 April 1915 at Windsor, Melbourne, elder of two daughters of Sir Douglas Mawson, geologist and Antarctic explorer, and his wife Francisca Adriana (Paquita), née Delprat, community worker, writer, and daughter of Dutch mining engineer Guillaume Delprat. As an infant, Pat was raised by her maternal grandmother, aunt, and uncle in San Francisco, United States of America, while her parents were in London contributing to the war effort. Returning to Australia with her grandmother and aunt towards the end of 1918, she grew up at Brighton, a beachside suburb of Adelaide, then considered an outer suburb.

Mawson’s early education was completed at Hopetoun School, a local school that used the parish hall at St Jude’s Anglican Church, which her mother had played a leading role in establishing. She then attended Woodlands Church of England Girls’ Grammar School where she obtained her Leaving certificate in 1932. Despite her father’s extended periods of absence during her childhood, the family was close. They frequently spent weekends at his 187-acre (76 ha) farm in the Adelaide Hills. Among their diversions was a pet cat who had been born aboard Discovery, the ship used for her father’s British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) from 1929 to 1931.

While Mawson aspired to become a veterinarian, expense and family expectations prevented her from travelling to Melbourne to pursue veterinary science. Instead, she enrolled to study science at the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1936; MSc, 1938), where her father was professor of geology and mineralogy. Her younger sister, Jessica, would follow soon after, and subsequently pursued a career as a bacteriologist. Inheriting her father’s passion for scientific research, Pat occasionally attended interstate and overseas congresses with him and was active in the Adelaide University Science Association. In 1938 she completed her master’s thesis on nematodes in Australian marsupials under the supervision of the professor of zoology, Thomas Harvey Johnston. Although women were very much in a minority in scientific circles, she worked in a laboratory alongside many other female students and demonstrators.

For the rest of her career, Mawson focused on the study of nematodes and other helminths (parasitic worms) and on teaching zoology. Between 1938 and 1980, she held a series of part-time positions in the University of Adelaide’s department of zoology, first as Johnston’s research assistant, and later also as demonstrator, evening lecturer (1941-45), lecturer (1946-47), honorary research assistant (1948-50), junior research fellow (1951-55), research fellow (1956-63), and technical officer (1964-80). Through her work she had met Ifor Morris Thomas, a Welshman and zoology lecturer at the University of Sydney, at a field school on oyster culture in August 1945. They were engaged a year later, and married on 14 January 1947 at the Mawsons’s parish church, St Jude’s Church, making their home nearby. They were to have three sons, Gareth in 1948 and twins Emlyn and Alun in 1950. Marriage and motherhood did not herald the end of Thomas’s research career. In 1954 she was awarded a Royal Society and Nuffield Foundation commonwealth bursary to work at the Institute of Parasitology at McGill University in Canada, and she also spent time at a laboratory in the Netherlands. From 1980 until her retirement in 1995, she was an honorary curator at the South Australian Museum.

Thomas’s contribution to parasitology was significant. She worked on both parasitic and free-living nematodes of Australia, the Antarctic, and sub-Antarctic, and with a range of host species, including marsupials, monotremes, placental mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Under her unmarried name, she published over 100 articles on ‘virtually all of the known orders of parasitic nematodes’ (Beveridge 2000, 58), her work being primarily descriptive and taxonomic. Her other substantial scientific contribution was to build, organise, and document the helminth collection of the South Australian Museum into a collection of international significance. This work she completed with her long-time university and museum colleagues Madeline Angel and Stan Edmonds.

Alongside her parasitological work, Thomas was busy as a volunteer. For nearly twenty years after her father’s death in 1958, she was responsible for editing the final BANZARE scientific reports, including coordinating their printing and distribution. She also contributed to the management committee of the Mawson Centre for Antarctic Research at the University of Adelaide. In the 1970s and 1980s she was a member of the Flora and Fauna of South Australia Handbooks Committee and a council member of the Royal Society of South Australia (1976-91). She also served as a member of South Australia’s National Parks Commission (1967-72), National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council (1972-78), and the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia (vice president 1968-75), of which she and her husband were foundation members in 1963. Beyond her scientific and environmental work, she served on the central committee of the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. In this, she followed the example of her mother, who served on the central committee for thirty years, and her grandmother, who served on the first committee. Her association with the MBHA also allowed her to participate in the National Council of Women.

A tall woman with soft but piercing blue eyes, Thomas was known as a forthright and no-nonsense person who was committed to getting work done. Sometimes called ‘Old Mother Mawson’ by her sister, she earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian among some students, but was nonetheless approachable and sensitive to the needs of friends, students, and colleagues. In recognition of her contribution to zoology, she was awarded the Verco medal of the Royal Society of South Australia (1974) and appointed AO (1994). She was also the first woman elected as fellow of the Australian Society for Parasitology (1976). Predeceased by Ifor in 1985, she died on 16 December 1999. Survived by her sister and three sons, she was cremated and her ashes, along with her husband’s, were scattered at Hanson Bay, Kangaroo Island. More than a dozen species and at least three genera of parasitic worms have since been named in her honour.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Beveridge, Ian. ‘Obituary.’ Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 124 (2000): 57-60
  • McArthur, Archie. ‘Obituary.’ Records of the South Australian Museum 34, no. 1 (2001): 53–56
  • McEwin, Emma. The Many Lives of Douglas Mawson. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc10.207, Papers of the Mawson Family
  • South Australian Museum. Australian Polar Collection, Papers of Douglas Mawson
  • South Australian Museum Archives. SAMA958, Patricia Mawson Collection
  • Thomas, Patricia. Interview by Jennifer Barker, 2 September 1989. Sound recording. J. D. Somerville Oral History Collection. State Library of South Australia
  • Thomas, Patricia [Mrs Ifor Thomas]. Interview by Averil Holt, 1 July 1982. MS Acc10.207, Papers of the Mawson Family. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alessandro Antonello, 'Thomas, Patricia Marietje (Pat) (1915–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-patricia-marietje-pat-32858/text40924, published online 2023, accessed online 18 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Patricia Thomas, c1995

Patricia Thomas, c1995

Thomas family collection

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mawson, Patricia Marietje
Birth

13 April, 1915
Windsor, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

16 December, 1999 (aged 84)
Brighton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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