Ethel McLennan

Ethel Irene McLennan (1891-1983), botanist and educator, was born on 15 March 1891 at Williamstown, Victoria, second child of Eleanor (born Tucker) and George McLennan. The family moved via East Melbourne to Hawthorn, where her father was employed and later was a partner in Henry Box & Co. Ethel was educated at Tintern Ladies' College, where two teachers, Dr Georgina Sweet (q.v.) and Bertha Rees, kindled her love of botany. She won an exhibition to the University of Melbourne, graduating BSc with honours in 1914, followed by appointment as demonstrator-lecturer.

At the time of her appointment no mycology or plant pathology was taught. From 1919 these subjects were to be her main teaching and research. She was awarded her DSc in 1921 for a study of the endophytic fungus associated with the seed of the grass Lolium, and in 1927 won the David Syme research prize for the best original research in science with a paper on the same subject. Awarded a fellowship by the International Federation of University Women in 1926, she travelled on the same ship as Dr Isabel Cookson (q.v.) to England, where she worked at the Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, on the growth of fungi in the soil, a subject which successfully occupied her for many years.

On her return to the University of Melbourne she helped oversee the move of the Botany Department to its new building. Dr Mac, as she was known, was by then a formidable strength in the Department. In 1931 she became associate professor of botany. Postgraduate students flocked to the department to work under her direction on mycology and plant pathology. Her reputation as the leading plant pathologist and mycologist extended Australia-wide and she was frequently consulted on subjects ranging from diseases in garden peas in Tasmania and the 'Take-all' disease of hops, to 'Squirter' disease in Queensland bananas. She travelled widely and after painstaking laboratory investigation came up with answers. Following Prof. Ewart's death in 1937 she was acting Head of Department for one year. She welcomed his young successor warmly and gave him loyal support.

During the war the Botany Department staff were involved with problems of 'biodeterioration' of optical instruments in the tropics. Dr McLennan was the mycologist in the team which devised new treatments adopted by the Australian military forces. Her other major task was the establishment, maintenance and enlargement of Penicillium and other fungal cultures with a view to establishing Australian resources of antibiotics.

Dr Mac was a tower of strength to women students and was active in women's organisations, such as Women Graduates, Staff and Distaff and the Women of the University Fund. She was president of the Australian Federation of University Women in 1934 and chaired the Australian Pan- Pacific Women's Committee in 1929. Hospitable and generous to visitors and newcomers, she made them welcome in the rooms of the Lyceum Club or in her home, a charming Victorian house in a lovely garden reflecting her love of plants and her graceful skill as a gardener. She was a long-serving member of the National Trust's garden committee at Como House and an early champion of the use of indigenous flora in design. A skilful illustrator herself, she also used Ellis Rowan (q.v.) to display her fungi (Victorian Naturalist 1932).

Fair-skinned with brilliant blue eyes, she was a small plump figure always smartly dressed. She was quick witted and had a sharp tongue when her hackles were raised. Her powers of observation, attention to detail and perception of the relative importance of the matter made her a discerning judge of people and their achievements. She took her responsibility for educating the young very seriously, being punctilious, never arriving late for her well-prepared lectures and practical classes; she expected the same dedication to duty from her contemporaries, and particularly from her students. She died on 12 June 1983.

Sophie C. Ducker