Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Joyce Winifred Vickery (1908–1979)

by Claire Hooker

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Joyce Vickery, n.d.

Joyce Vickery, n.d.

Australian National Herbarium

Joyce Winifred Vickery (1908-1979), botanist and conservationist, was born on 15 December 1908 at Strathfield, Sydney, youngest of four children of George Begg Vickery, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth Alice Adeline, née Rossbach (d.1923), who were born in New South Wales. Her father was an amateur microscopist and a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales. Ebenezer Vickery was her grandfather and Frank Vickery her cousin. Joyce was educated at the Methodist Ladies' College, Burwood, and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1931; M.Sc., 1933; D.Sc., 1959). In 1931 she was appointed demonstrator in botany. While at university, she held (1931-36) a science research scholarship, joined the Linnean (1930) and Royal (1935) societies of New South Wales, and was a founder (1930) and president (1934) of the Sydney University Biology Society.

Vickery enjoyed camping and outdoor life, and spent much of her holidays engaged in field-work with her colleagues. In 1931 she and her close friend in the Department of Agriculture, Lilian Ross Fraser, bought a second-hand 1926 Chevrolet Tourer and explored the upper Williams River and Barrington Tops. From these trips, they published a series of pioneering ecological papers. Vickery was offered the post of assistant botanist at the National Herbarium of New South Wales in August 1936: she refused £188 a year, insisted on being paid according to her qualifications, and negotiated a salary of £251. Thereafter she conducted long-running battles with the Public Service Board over equal pay.

Believing systematics to be fundamental to all botanical work, Vickery led a revival of taxonomic research. In 1937-38 she spent a year (largely self-funded) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. Following her return, she trained a new generation of professional systematists. In 1939 she persuaded Robert Anderson to publish a journal, Contributions from the New South Wales National Herbarium. As its editor, she displayed a 'gift for lucid expression' and carried out her duties 'with studied diplomacy', but sometimes felt it necessary 'almost to rewrite another's work'. During World War II she joined the National Emergency Services as an ambulance driver.

Vickery's major research interest centred on the revision of Australian grass species, the Gramineae, that were notoriously difficult to classify. Her work was meticulous and painstaking, characterized by fine attention to detail, rigorous pursuit of historical information and a careful, even-handed approach to opposing arguments. Her methods were conservative and empirical: she saw morphology as the primary basis for taxonomy, but respected new theoretical and technical approaches.

At the herbarium Vickery gave generously of her time in identifying specimens for a wide range of clients. Sometimes she came to public notice for her forensic services. Her identification of plant fragments on the suspect's car and clothing led to the conviction in 1961 of Stephen Leslie Bradley for the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne. She worked tirelessly to reconstruct the herbarium as a modern scientific research institution, to raise standards, to organize and extend its library and specimen collections, and to initiate and edit its publications, including a new Flora of New South Wales (1971-84).

Acutely conscious of the need for conservation, Vickery supported John Tipper's Muogamarra Sanctuary, served as a trustee of the Elouera Bushland Reserve and campaigned in the 1960s for the preservation of the fragile ecology of Kosciusko State Park, for which she produced (at her own expense) an extensive report on grazing and erosion. In 1959 she gained a doctorate of science for her revision of the genus Poa in Australia. She was appointed M.B.E. in 1962 and awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal by the local Royal Society in 1964. Promoted to senior botanist that year, she retired in 1968, but continued her research. In 1973-79 she was honorary research fellow at the herbarium. As honorary treasurer (1971-78) of the Linnean Society, she tried to improve its finances.

Reserved and formal in her personal style and conservative in her values, Vickery was good humoured, modest, tolerant of others and an independent thinker. She abandoned religious belief early in her career. Imbued with her family's ethics of self-discipline, loyalty and public service, she was generous in her professional and financial support of others, and, although wealthy, chose to live within her earned income. When she felt herself to be right, she was blunt and outspoken. Declaring in childhood that 'she didn't want any man hanging on to her coat-tails', she never married and lived sustained by a few deep friendships. She died of cancer on 29 May 1979 at her Cheltenham home and was cremated. The Linnean Society, which benefited from her generosity, named its research fund after her.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal and Proceedings, 97, 1964, p 227, 113, 1980, p 104
  • New South Wales Department of Agriculture, Telopea, 2, no 1, 1980, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 July 1934, 2 Sept 1936, 18 Feb, 24 May 1958, 26 Apr 1959, 2 June 1962, 16 Jan 1963, 17 May 1966, 4 Jan 1968, 8 June 1979
  • Vickery papers (National Herbarium of New South Wales Archives, Sydney)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Claire Hooker, 'Vickery, Joyce Winifred (1908–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024