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MacGillivray, Leith Grant (1930–2018)

by Bernard O'Neil

Leith MacGillivray, by Brian Dickey, 2003

Leith MacGillivray, by Brian Dickey, 2003

Approaching her 88th birthday Leith Grant MacGillivray died while in palliative care in Adelaide on 23 February. Leith was born on 26 March 1930 in the Coonawarra district in the South East of the state. Her father, Donald, had fought in World War I and had obtained land in that area under the post-war soldier settler scheme. Leith had one sibling, an older sister Dorothy. The family struggled there: mother Doreen tried to make a living from selling milk from a small dairy herd. During the Great Depression years the family moved to Colonel Light Gardens where she attended primary school and then Unley High School. After World War II she enrolled at the Adelaide Teachers College, specialising in physical education.

From 1951 Leith was a teacher at the Naracoorte, Mt Gambier, Campbelltown and Marion high schools. In the late 1950s she taught at a missionary school in northern India and a decade later she spent three years in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea with Australian Volunteers Abroad.

Returning to Adelaide, in 1974 Leith completed an Honours degree in the History Department at the University of Adelaide. Her thesis was ‘Manning Clark: a study in the art and craft of history’. Many years later a memorable experience for Leith was escorting a highly appreciative Manning Clark around the South East.

She then undertook a PhD on a part-time basis over the next seven years, a period which included working as an archivist in the South Australian Archives. Bill Gammage supervised her excellent doctoral thesis, ‘Land and people: European land settlement in the South East of South Australia 1840-1940’, which was submitted in October 1982. It remains one of those academic works that surely deserves a wider audience.

Her subsequent working career was as the Education Officer in the Mortlock Library of South Australiana. Here she was in her element, helping the public and, especially, many students and teachers with projects generally and particularly for the state’s sesquicentenary in 1986. Her thoroughness, knowledge, doggedly determined research and meticulous attention to detail could overwhelm the unexpecting recipient of her help but, undeniably, her efforts were appreciated widely.

As an Education Officer she promoted the causes of history and of teaching history and of both to teachers, students and the general public. Leith had been one of the founding members of the Association of Professional Historians in 1980, the first such body in Australia. She also engaged with academic circles by participating in meetings, seminars and the like. For many years she resided at Kathleen Lumley College where she assisted overseas students, in particular, and visiting scholars.

Upon retiring from the workforce in the mid 1990s, Leith continued her own research interests and assisting many historians with their projects, usually without a fee. One of her pet projects was a significant investigation into the lives of women in early colonial South Australia.

Leith’s name is still well respected in the place of her birth and formative years. At the State History Conference in Robe in 2015 her image was featured as a backdrop to a talk by a prominent local historian on pastoral settlement on the Limestone Coast. Her expertise and help contributed to the latest book on the history of Penola and the Coonawarra which was launched in November 2017.

Dr Leith MacGillivray was a mentor, confidante, colleague, educator, sparring partner and friend to many in the wider historical community. Her funeral service was conducted at Holy Trinity Church, North Terrace, Adelaide on 7 March. Eleven days later her ashes were scattered in the old Penola Cemetery.

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Citation details

Bernard O'Neil, 'MacGillivray, Leith Grant (1930–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 March 2023.

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