Early women students

Marjorie Isabel Collins

Marjorie Isabel Collins (later Shiels) graduated Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in Botany from the University of Sydney in 1916 and was the first University of Sydney Master of Science graduate in 1924.

Click on images below for enlargement.


Her early years

Marjorie Isabel Collins' parents were James and Annie Collins. She was born in Richmond in 1895, 'a brilliant member of a brilliant family – one brother, Dr Archibald Collins, was Assistant Director of the Australian medical organization in France during the war'. (The Register, 11 November 1924)

She matriculated from the Fort Street Girls' High School in 1912.

At the University of Sydney

Marjorie Collins graduated Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in Botany from the University of Sydney in 1916.

During 1916-17 she held a science research scholarship at the University.

In 1920 she was appointed to a Linnean Macleay Fellowship at Sydney and in 1924 graduated Master of Science with First Class Honours and the University medal in Botany.

Her career

In 1917 Marjorie Collins was appointed Lecturer and Demonstrator in Botany at the University of Adelaide and the following year the degree of Bachelor of Science ad eundem gradum was conferred on her there.

Marjorie Collins in the Botany Laboratory, University of Adelaide, in 1918

Marjorie Collins with students in the Botany Laboratory, University of Adelaide, with students in 1918, photo 1151-0204, University of Adelaide.


In 1924 she was awarded one of two postgraduate scholarships available for students from the dominions, and tenable at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.

'The subject of Miss Collins's research has been the vegetation of arid areas of New South Wales, and she has made many journeys through South Australia into the desert regions beyond Broken Hill, west of the River Darling, and across to Lake Callabonna, one of the big salt lakes. She is interested chiefly in the relation of a low rainfall and other climatic features to vegetation – work very useful from the pastoralists' point of view. Her investigations have shown that more definite legislation is absolutely necessary for the grazing country in the arid regions, and while she is away she hopes to make enquiries about grazing legislation in different countries. If possible she intends to visit America, which has vast arid grazing lands. Land in country which has less than a 10 inches of rain fall needs careful looking after if the maximum use is to be made of it, and much of the country she has investigated has been considerably overstocked and eaten out in places. The result is that the land becomes wind-swept, and big, bare areas are hardened by the wind-blown sand. Such areas are particularly inhospitable to seedlings, and consequently vegetation deteriorates and desert conditions are found encroaching on arid conditions. It is of little use, Miss Collins points out, to talk about making better pastoral use of the desert when we are allowing the desert to grow. What is most important is that what she calls the 'desert fringe' should be looked after. There is here a vast field of experimental work, and Miss Collins hopes to continue this part of her work overseas. Miss Collins remarks on the fact that scientists from other parts of the world are encouraged by their Governments to study our vegetation, while Australian scientists, who are on the spot, and can live for months at a time in different parts, get very little encouragement from their home authorities. Miss Collins herself has seen the country she has been studying under totally different conditions in successive years. The work has been often strenuous, and pursued under trying conditions; but it has opened out to her a wide knowledge of conditions of Australian life of which otherwise she might have known nothing. She acknowledges with gratitude the courtesy and assistance accorded her by Sir Sidney Kidman, who gave her the entree to all his stations, and arranged transport for her. And talking of transport, it is interesting, she says, in those drought regions, where sometimes ' a drought might last for three years', to see the two modes of transport, camels and motor cars. Only these can survive drought conditions. The scholarship awarded to Miss Collins was founded this year in honour of the Empire Exhibtiion, to encourage scientists from the dominions to study, at the Imperial College, where there are particularly fine facilities for research. It is the gift of a private individual, but the hope has been expressed in scientific circles that the dominion Governments may see their way to assist in making it a permanent scholarship, like the annual scholarships which followed on the 1851 exhibition'. (The Register, 11 November 1924)

She returned to Sydney in 1925, when she married Norman Shiels BME (Melbourne), a structural engineer in Sydney, and they had one daughter Eleanor.

Marjorie Shiels in 1930

Marjorie Shiels in 1930, photo G3_224_1415, University of Sydney Archives.


After her marriage, Marjorie Shiels taught for long periods, as well as co-authoring school biology texts.

She died in 1970.


Information sources
  • Encyclopedia of Australian Science
  • National Library of Australia historic newspapers
  • University of Sydney Calendar Archive