Mary Elizabeth White

Honorary Doctor of Science

Citation delivered by Professor Gerard Sutton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Mary Elizabeth White to the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on 19 July 2001.


Chancellor, I present Mary Elizabeth White.

Mary White was raised in Southern Rhodesia, an abundant landscape and fitting cradle for her scientific imagination. She graduated with a Masters Degree in Botany from the University of Cape Town in 1945 but her career as a scientist was adjourned for a number of decades while she cared for her large family - a geologist husband and five children. When her career resumed, it could be seen as reflecting the values and lessons of her years as wife and mother. It combines a love of the life and the earth sciences and a nurturing and educative zeal.

Mary White came to Australia with her family in 1955. She devoted herself to their care and worked, until the 1980s, as a part-time Consultant to the Bureau of Mineral Resources in Canberra and as a Research Associate for the Australian Museum in Sydney where she curated the plant fossil collection of 12,000 specimens. It was not until 1984, in what many would see as her autumn years, that Mary White became a full-time writer and lecturer. Hers is truly an autumn full of “mellow fruitfulness”.

Dr White drew on her knowledge of the southern lands, their botany and evolution, to tell the story of the Great Southern continent – Gondwanaland. Her first book “The Greening of Gondwana” was published in 1986 and became a classic in Australian libraries, schools and homes. (Her publisher was astounded when this new author in her 60th year presented him with print-ready copy). The books which followed “After The Greening: The Browning of Australia” and the trilogy “Listen – Our Land is Crying” demonstrate how vulnerable our unique ancient continent is to European-style land use.

John Stewart Collis, ecologist and philosopher, once wrote of the relationship between plants and the earth. Collis observed: The plants “toiled in the dawn of life … then they grew flesh upon the strong skeleton of earth … they spread their mantle over all the earth, they laid the foundation for the kingdoms of the world.” (The Vision of Glory, 1972). Mary White recognises and celebrates these primal, interdependent relationships in nature. She holds out a warning to the “kingdoms of the world” which have depleted the environment, degraded its soil and polluted its waters. Her message is delivered powerfully through not only her many popular publications but also through public appearances. Mary White is a great communicator in the spoken as well as the written word.

Members of the University’s School of Geosciences are privileged to know Dr White as a colleague. Senior staff and postgraduate students collaborated on her latest book – “Running Down: Water in a Changing Land”. The School provided the expertise on river systems and Dr White wove their science into a readable and provoking account of Australia’s water crisis.

Through her association with the University, Dr White has publicised the quality of the research in the School of Geosciences. She has given her time also as a speaker at functions for current and prospective students.

Chancellor, Dr Mary White has been honoured by two Australian Universities and, in 1999, she received the Riversleigh Medal " for excellence in promoting understanding of Australian prehistory”. Her book "After the Greening: The Browning of Australia” won the Eureka Prize.

Today, the University of Wollongong celebrates Dr Mary White’s achievements as a scholar, scientist and environmentalist. We acknowledge her rare combination of gifts as a writer and a speaker; we express our gratitude to her as a colleague and supporter of our staff and students. Mary White is a model to all of us in her enthusiasm and generosity. She is especially an inspiration to women in science and to those who are also in their autumn years, for Mary White has reaped a rich harvest.

Chancellor, it is my great pleasure to present Mary Elizabeth White for the award of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.