Joyce Allan, Conchologist

Joyce Allan was one of Australia's early female scientists whose monumental book Australian Shells filled a long felt need

Joyce Allan

Joyce Allan
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Catherine Mabel Joyce Allan, who preferred to be known as Joyce, was born in Balmain, Sydney on the 8th April, 1896. She grew up in a large family, the eighth of the nine children of Joseph and Florence Allan.

Joyce found shells fascinating, so while she was still at Fort Street Girls’ High School, she frequently went to the Australian Museum to sort shells for the conchologist, Charles Hedley:
Before her, on a table, was a large school slate, which was marked with a pattern of chalked lines. In the centre of that slate was a little heap of shells and sand from the beach…. Under the learned eye of the conchologist, she would separate the specimens into their proper zoological groups.’

Joyce became a temporary employee of the Museum in 1917, getting a permanent position on 5th November, 1920. After the resignation of Charles Hedley in 1924, Joyce was, temporarily at least, in charge of the Conchology section with Tom Iredale as her assistant. The following year the positions were reversed. She was officially classified as a second class scientific assistant in 1931, when the Museum employees became part of the NSW Public Service.

She was a talented artist who illustrated articles for Charles Hedley. She was also increasingly knowledgeable on the subject of molluscs and she was published in the Australian Museum Magazine, the Records of the Australian Museum and also in The Australian Zoologist, the journal of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

As the only female conchologist in Australia at the time, she was the subject of various newspaper and magazine articles. Her popularity as a interview subject was enhanced by her ability to communicate. In 1939 The Australian Women’s Weekly said of her: ‘… she has the gift of explaining scientific subjects in a thoroughly lucid manner.’

For two years during the Second World War, she worked in the National Emergency Services, assisting the superintendent of ARP training. Her artistic skill came in handy when she was called upon to draw bomb parts and to prepare publications and films. She was wont to say that she ‘went from working on marine shells to working on bomb shells.’

She returned to the Museum in time to succeed Tom Iredale when he retired in 1944. In May 1949 she married Hector Kirkpatrick, and even though public service rules still barred married women from employment, she kept her job.

In 1950 her first book, Australian Shells, was published; it was well received by the scientific community, and remained a favourite with collectors for many years. The Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales sent Joyce their congratulations: 'Your plates are excellent and with the all round high class craftsmanship, the book is something more than ordinary'.

With Elizabeth Pope, Joyce organised a week-long visit to Lord Howe Island for delegates to the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held at Sydney University in 1952. This was the only excursion for delegates of the conference that was organised by women.

She worked at the Museum as conchologist until ill health forced her to retire in June 1956, the same year as her second book Cowry Shells of the World Seas was published. Even though she was not in the best of health, she retained her interest and enthusiasm, and like many other Museum scientists, she continued to work with the museum collections as an honorary zoologist after she retired. With her colleague Gilbert Whitley, she co-wrote The Sea-Horse and its Relatives which was published in 1958.

But in 1962 she gave up her work as an honorary zoologist and she died at the age of 70, on 31st August 1966.

Professional Associations:
• She was first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales in 1943
• She belonged to the Linnean Society of New South Wales
• She belonged to the (Royal) Over-Seas League
• She belonged to the Society of Women Writers of New South Wales
• She was patroness of the Malacological Club of Victoria (Society of Australia from 1956).

Additional information:

D. F. McMichael, 'Allan, Catherine Mabel Joyce (1896–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/allan-catherine-mabel-joyce-9329/text16377, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 1 November 2014.

"ROMANCE OF THE SHELL INDUSTRY." The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) 22 Jun 1937: 6 Supplement: Women's Supplement. Web. 2 Nov 2014 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17377237

1939 'What Women are Doing.', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 25 February, p. 22, viewed 2 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51591994

1946 'Women Scientists From Other States Here For Congress.', The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 - 1954), 21 August, p. 5, viewed 2 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35710941

1950 'Science Career Began With Shells On Schoolgirl's Slate.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 2 December, p. 2, viewed 3 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18189589

1951 'SHOULD SEA SHELLS STAY ON THE.', The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), 10 March, p. 2, viewed 2 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50101771

1951 'Britain—the almost unknown isle.', News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 - 1954), 2 January, p. 7, viewed 2 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article130367445

1952 'Women For Science Conference.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 10 July, p. 9, viewed 2 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18272593

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Ms Prue Walker , Volunteer archivist
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