The first time I saw this photo from about 1920, I saw it as an image of Charles Hedley, the dapper chap with the beard. But I looked again and this time I noticed the other people, one of whom is Joyce Allan. She is the young woman towards the right of the photo and I was struck by her expression. She looked to me as though she was trying not to giggle.

Conchological Staff of the Australian Museum.
Conchological Staff of the Australian Museum. Left to right: Charles Hedley, Phyllis Clarke, Joyce Allan & Rex Bretnall. This photograph is not dated though is thought to have been taken around 1920. AMM1897-1 Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

Some weeks later I came across a 1935 letter from Gilbert Whitley to his colleagues at the Australian Museum. He wrote from Melbourne where he was attending a Congress run by the Association for the Advancement of Science: ‘Mawson gave a 2-hour address on the “Unveiling of Antarctica” and Joyce and I had a job to keep awake.’

These snippets gave me the feeling that I was more familiar with the person than the scientist because at the time, all I knew about Joyce Allan was that she was the first woman to be employed as a scientist by the Australian Museum. And Joyce Allan was a well-respected scientist.

Among her many achievements she became head of Conchology (Shells) at the Australian Museum, she was first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales and she wrote a ground-breaking book, Australian Shells, which was both well-received by the scientific community and a favourite with collectors for many years.

She was already employed by the Museum when Gilbert Whitley started there in 1921 so they were colleagues for decades. They co-authored a book: The Sea-Horse and its Relatives, which was published in 1958, two years after Joyce retired from the Museum.

In the 1930s, 40s and 50s she was featured by various newspapers and magazines, not only because she was that very rare beast, a female scientist, but also because she was a skilled communicator. Here are links to some of those articles:

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

1939 'What Women are Doing.', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 25 February, p. 22, viewed 2 November, 2014,

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,