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Crabtree, Muriel Grace (1908–2010)

by Patricia Edgar and Lesley Falloon

Muriel Crabtree was the unusual combination of biochemist, teacher and artist. This quiet achiever also became a role model for hundreds of students who attended Melbourne University Women's College during her years as vice-principal.

She died on December 18 in Box Hill Hospital aged 102 after a stroke, having lived a fulfilled and active life.

The Melbourne University Women's College, a pioneering institution, was established in 1937 after a long and difficult struggle.

It was the first college for women in Australia that aimed to provide an education equal in status to the then four men's colleges at Melbourne University — Ormond, Trinity, Newman and Queen's. Crabtree, philosophically a strong feminist, had a close involvement with University College for almost 50 years as a graduate, resident, resident tutor, vice-principal, acting principal, governor, member of the college council, member of the Friends of the College and benefactor.

Born in Launceston, she spent her early years there before moving, with her family, to Melbourne for her tertiary education. After gaining her Master of Science at Melbourne University, she won a Foreign Women's Scholarship to Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia, one of the five most notable women's colleges in the US.

Following an academic year there, she travelled to England, where she received British Medical Research Council Grants, working at laboratories at Mill Hill and at the Lister Institute at Elstree for three years. She then worked for one year at the University College Hospital pathology department in London. During that time, she travelled to Austria and to Switzerland to learn special microchemical techniques. Crabtree continued with this line of research when she came back to Australia, working first with Professor Victor Trikojus at Sydney University medical school, then returning to Melbourne to take up an appointment at the Melbourne University biochemistry school, firstly as a demonstrator, later as a lecturer.

She entered college as a graduate resident. A little later she was appointed resident tutor in biochemistry. She became acting principal when the incumbent went to Europe on leave, and remained in that role until Myra Roper's appointment to the job.

Miss Roper and Miss Crabtree were a great team. For the pair, the early years in office were a time for building and development, a time when the college expanded its student numbers from 43 to 131, building two new wings, a new dining hall and a kitchen. It became a magnet particularly for country and Asian students.

The influence of these two women on the lives of the college students of the time is immeasurable. They were colleagues and good friends, and they complemented each other to the ultimate good of the college and its students, who were provided with a first class academic education and a cultural experience that broadened personal horizons.

Crabtree's role in these years was that of a truly caring leader and an academic scholar. She worried about student health problems as deeply as she worried about politics and world affairs.

She is also widely remembered for her interest in and knowledge of art, for the interesting paintings and prints on her walls, her sculptures and other objets d'art, all of which helped widen the knowledge of students.

After Myra Roper's retirement, Muriel Crabtree continued as vice-principal for some months before returning to full-time work in the biochemistry school.

During that time and beyond, Crabtree lived a full life. She loved to travel and revelled in new experiences. She visited countries to which few women alone ventured — including China, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Papua New Guinea.

She visited a number of foreign students who had been resident in the college and showed great courage travelling to remote places, taking small boats and planes into the unknown.

Throughout her life she remained active, and she was swimming regularly up to her 100th birthday.

For eight years after retirement from the university, she was a member and tutor of the City of Melbourne campus of the University of the Third Age. As a talented and interesting speaker she developed a wide following.

Painting was a major interest of Crabtree's, particularly in her years of retirement. She was a member of the Victorian Artists Society, where she attended weekly and developed her considerable talent, specialising in pastel drawings.

In her 103rd year Crabtree had been preparing for an exhibition of the pastels she had drawn over the past decade.

As a tribute to this remarkable woman, these drawings will be displayed at University College and launched by Governor-General Quentin Bryce in February. The college plans to establish an award in Crabtree's name for women in leadership. Those interested should contact Melbourne University College.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 4 January 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Patricia Edgar and Lesley Falloon, 'Crabtree, Muriel Grace (1908–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/crabtree-muriel-grace-13384/text24026, accessed 25 November 2017.

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