Mary’s love of language

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories. We’re blogging all week to show off Mary Gillham’s archive…

Natalie Christie – Biodiversity Information Assistant

Today, our Cardiff University placement student Nat, who is spending a year working on the project, writes about Mary’s use of language. 

Whilst studying a Zoology degree at university we are constantly reminded to be as concise and precise as possible in the way that we write. This can be advantageous when trying to make a point when writing a scientific paper, however it also means that the writing style is less engaging and more difficult to read.

What I’m noticing during my time at the Mary Gillham Archive Project is how, whilst communicating in a scientific way, Mary also includes detailed and eloquent descriptions in her written work; really making the science come alive.

Take, for example, the jellyfish. A textbook from the university library, ‘Marine Biology’ by Thurman and Webber (1984), describes them like this: “Schyphozoa, or jellyfish, are feeble swimmers. Their body, which is mostly mesoglea, can reach a relatively large size and still have virtually no biomass. Schyphozoa are carnivores that use tentacles with nematocysts to capture prey.”

However Mary describes them as “beautiful pulsating phantoms with silken fringes, like animated lamp shades”, a much more poetic description than the former.

Whilst relaying scientific information, unlike a lot of modern scientific writing, Mary has the ability to create incredible imagery in the reader’s mind; making her work much more engaging to read. Her creative description of Australian geckoes is a perfect example; she describes how they had “fat stored in their tails – making them resemble Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu”… Not a comparison you’re likely to find in a modern-day textbook!


Mary’s descriptions of ‘flying fish’ throughout her work are captivating, frequently using similes to portray these fish as “aeroplanes”. On top of this her work is often accompanied by her own artistic drawings and sketches, adding an additional element of creativity to the science…


The inclusion of sketches in her species lists adds an extra something to the scientific data:

butterfly sketch.jpg

The use of metaphors are also not infrequent in Mary’s writing; when recalling the species found during a 1959 trip to St. Alouarn, Australia, she doesn’t fail to poetically mention how the “island was alive with big king skinks” and the “bushes were haunted by twittering silver eyes”…



Mary’s exquisite drawings, alongside her elegant writing style, emphasise the talents she held as both a scientist and an artist.

You don’t have to search far through Mary’s work to find examples of her mesmerising descriptions and explanations; with the ability to hold the reader’s attention for so long, it’s easy to get lost in her writings for hours at a time… Why not pick up one of Mary’s many published books and see for yourself just how engaging her work can be?


The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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One thought on “Mary’s love of language

  1. Pingback: Accessing memories – Mary Gillham Archive Project

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