Mary Eleanor Gillham was born in Ealing, London on November 26th 1921. Her parents owned a car and enjoyed camping, taking a young Mary and brother John to Scotland, the Lake District and even Switzerland before 1939. Despite an already-present love for nature and an inherent need to write down everything she saw Mary was destined to work for the City Council in London until WWII broke out, when she immediately applied to join the Women’s Land Army.
As a consequence, Mary was given the opportunity of a university education and was supported by the British Government through an Agriculture and Botany undergraduate degree at the University of Aberystwyth (under the tutelage of Prof. Lily Newton) before completing a PhD on Island Ecology at Bangor University in 1953.
Mary’s primary passion was botany but island ecology remained a close second throughout her career which began with an Assistant Lectureship in Botany at the University of Exeter. After 3.5 years there Mary instigated an international migration that was to set her apart from many of her contemporaries. In 1957 Mary began an exchange lectureship at Massey University New Zealand, followed by three years’ teaching and researching in Australia at Melbourne University which included a trip as one of the first female scientists to enter the Antarctic region (Macquarie Island) in 1959 and multiple field seasons on remote Bass Strait islands studying Mutton Bird colonies.
Mary returned to the UK in 1962 (via multiple African countries) and settled in Cardiff for the remainder of her life spending over 60 years recording wildlife and working to protect species and habitats across the country. Mary was instrumental in the protection of acres of Welsh habitat and was routinely consulted on how to manage the change of South Wales’ landscapes from industrial to more natural ones with the decline of extractive industries.
A lecturer at Cardiff University and former president of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society and Gwent Wildlife Trust, Mary Gillham spent time travelling, researching, and leading trips around the world (including America, Africa, Europe and as one of the first female scientists to Aldabra). She wrote over 20 books on natural history, 51 scientific papers, countless newspaper and magazine articles as well as contributing to the education of thousands through her work as an Extramural lecturer.
At the end of her life Mary’s archive of written notes, travel journals, wildlife diaries, unpublished manuscripts, illustrations and 14,000 slides were passed to the South East Wales Biodiversity Records Centre which received Heritage Lottery Funding to digitise the c. 150,000 wildlife records and tell the story of this ground-breaking scientist.
Mary Gillham was awarded an MBE in 2008 for services to nature conservation and remains an inspirational role model both for her work as an educator and by forging a trail little trod by women before her.