Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

About us

Mary Tindale

19.09.1920 - 31.03.2011

Mary Douglas Tindale was born in Randwick, Sydney, in September 1920, the only child of George Harold and Grace Matilda Tindale. The cat was only let out of the bag last year when her cousin Elizabeth held a 90th birthday afternoon tea for her. For most of her life Mary lived by the old adage that 'a lady should not divulge her age'.

At around ten years of age Mary's family moved to New York. Her father, a Commonwealth Public Servant in the Diplomatic Corps, had been newly posted to New York for the purpose of working with the British Ambassador to the USA. It is here that Mary completed her Primary School education. On her return to Sydney she attended high school at Abbotsleigh in Wahroonga. After leaving school, she attended most, if not all, the yearly class reunions

After finishing school, Mary went to Sydney University, where she completed a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Botany. She then did research work on fungi on parachutes for her Masters degree. This was a practical project that would assist with the war effort. At this time she also taught botany at the Roseville Girls School. She commenced work at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney in April 1944 as Assistant Botanist, mainly to do research work for a new Flora of New South Wales.

From 1949 to 1951 Mary was the first Gardens' staff member to be appointed to the important position of Australian Botanical Liaison Officer, at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in England. In this role she enabled ‘various important research problems’ to be resolved by reference to essential literature and type specimens.

Mary travelled to England, with her mother as chaperone, aboard the P&O liner Stratheden which sailed through the Suez Canal - a voyage of just over 5 weeks. In those days flying was only for the very rich. In England they stayed in an apartment that was part of a house on the flat area of Richmond close to Kew.

Mary did a great deal of fern research at Kew and also visited herbaria all over the UK and Europe. It was while at Kew that she met three botanists that were to have an important influence on her botanical career - namely Professor Holttum from Singapore, Professor Pichi-Sermolli from Florence, and Madame Tardieu-Blot from Paris - who named a fern after her.

In 1964 Mary was awarded a Doctor of Science degree by the University of Sydney by an International Committee, one of the most seldom awarded and highest tiers of doctorates available today. She was then, in 1969, reclassified by the Public Service Board as Senior Research Scientist. Later, she became the first officer in the NSW Public Service to be appointed at the level of Principal Research Scientist.

Mary was an authority of ferns, wattles and the native soya bean Glycine. She was one of the authors of the Flora of the Sydney Region. During her long career as a renowned botanist, Mary served on many international committees pertaining to ferns. She was a member of the Special Committee for Pteridophytes in the International Bureau of Plant Taxonomy and Nomenclature from 1965 to 2005. She was Secretary of the Systematic Botany committee of ANZAAS. She assisted in the CSIRO program on Glycine by differentiating a number of native species, on which she published four papers. She prepared a large section of the text for the volumes on Acacia in the Flora of Australia series. At different times, Mary was editor of three botanical journals, namely Telopea, Contributions from the New South Wales National Herbarium and the latter’s Flora Series.

Mary attended as many International Botanical Congresses as possible. She always blushed when she told me stories about dancing the night away with foreign botanists. She lived in that wonderful era of elegant gowns and romantic dances and confessed she loved dancing the tango. I always felt she was proud of never having married - because of course in those days ‘one had to give up work as soon one married’. She was extremely proud to be a woman with an important, academic career. But she did have a boyfriend, Bill, who was killed in the war. We only found out recently whose photo that was on the wall in her room at Lansdowne Gardens - above the photo of herself that she’d had taken for him.

Mary’s assistants during her time at the Botanic Gardens were mostly men - they included David Keith, Don Fortescue, David Morrison, Clare Herscovitch, Stuart Davies, Phillip Kodela, Chris Puttock and Peter Wilson. From what I’ve heard, Mary was a very exacting boss, keeping them on their toes and toughening them up for their respective botanical careers. She also had an important collaboration with Dr Roy from Varanasi, India, who came to Sydney to work with her studying fern chromosomes.

Mary retired on 29 July 1983 after a notable career of 39 years at the Gardens. She continued her investigations and writing as an Honorary Research Associate until quite recently.

Mary was a personal friend of mine as well as a work colleague and in 2006 she allowed me to interview her for the Gardens’ Oral History Project. From this interview I learnt that she had developed her love of botany, at age three, from her father who was keenly interested in natural history. At school she played tennis, and as a young woman she enjoyed horse riding and played golf. She had hoped to become a commercial artist but her parents thought botany would be a far more suitable career.

Mary was passionate about opera and ballet, which she attended regularly. She often took me, and other friends, as her guest to operas and ballets. In fact she went to the opera only a couple of weeks ago. She told me lots of stories, both on our outings and during the interview. The first opera she attended was in Paris, when she was in her 20s, the next one was in London. She saw Joan Sutherland sing in Lucia di Lammermoor, and later she saw a young Placido Domingo singing Cavernossi in Tosca, in Vienna. She went to the Royal Command Ballet Performance for the French president in Paris where she saw Helpmann and Fontaine perform together. Mary was a Life Member of the Opera Auditions Committee and took many of us to their functions and performances over the years.

We’ll probably all remember Mary for her hats, her lipstick - always plenty of it, but not always in exactly the right place, and for her handbags. She was always prepared for every eventuality! Phillip recalls accompanying her to a classy function where there wasn't enough light to read the menu. She reached into her bag and got out a magnifying glass and a large dolphin torch. She was well known at work for hiding things - and consequently losing things. We never know what's going to turn up in boxes of plant specimens - perhaps a hat, some stockings, or even galoushes! Mary grew up in the war era, so had a habit of saving - everything.

I’ll always remember Mary for her stories of that elegant age - travelling with huge chests full of ballgowns on beautiful old ships, attending dinner parties and balls, and owning elegant clothes and hats. Mary only ever bought clothes at David Jones 7th floor or, in later years, from Jenny’s at Neutral Bay. David Jones was her favourite place to shop and I suspect she bought almost everything there. She told me once that her cat Bam Bam would never eat anything if he had to stay overnight at the vets - and she suspected it was because she only fed him fillet steak from David Jones.

Mary's neighbours - Cherelle, John and Haydon Kemp, and Sally and John Vigours, her cousins Elizabeth and Douglas, Margaret and Carrick Chambers, and the staff at Lansdowne Gardens, cared for Mary in recent years.

Mary Tindale lived a long and full life. She was thoughtful and kind, always with a gift for new babies and birthday and Christmas presents for friends, family and neighbours. She was full of surprises and had a social conscience - and, as we all know, she was not the retiring type but was one who spoke her mind. Mary enjoyed good health until very recently. She followed her interests of opera and ballet to the full, led an active social life, enjoyed life-long friendships, and pursued a long, successful and distinguished career in botany. We will miss her greatly.

Eulogy by Dr Penny Farrant 7 April 2011