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Gretna Margaret Weste (1917–2006)

from Australasian Plant Pathology

Gretna Weste was a member of staff of the School of Botany, University of Melbourne, from 1961 (Senior Demonstrator) to 1982 (Associate Professor). Her responsibilities involved teaching undergraduates in Botany, Agriculture and Forestry and postgraduates in Plant Pathology. During her time at the School of Botany, Gretna made an outstanding contribution to both teaching and research in plant pathology. She has supervised numerous PhD, Masters and Honours students, many of whom have followed in her footsteps and made their own impacts in plant pathology.

In 1983, Gretna was awarded a DSc for her collected works and her outstanding contribution to plant pathology and mycology. In that year she was Organising Chair of the highly successful 4th International Congress of Plant Pathology, which was held in Melbourne. In 1989, she was awarded a Member in the Order of Australia (AM) medal for her research in botany and in 1992 the Australasian Plant Pathology Society made her an Honorary Member (one of only six in the Society). Gretna was made Patron of the Australasian Mycological Society in 1999.

‘Today we take grandmamma to the top!’ rang out as Gretna and her guide stood facing a strenuous climb to the summit of 5895-m Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Central Africa. One website describes the climb as ‘probably one of the most dangerous things you will ever do. It is certainly one of the most dangerous things that you can pay to do’. Just the sort of environment that Gretna revelled in or, closer to home and in the name of plant pathology, being chased by a 5-m ‘salty’ and then running before a violent tropical storm in a flimsy Zodiac over Princess Charlotte Bay in Far North Queensland; Gretna discovered and published a new, still-unnamed Phytophthora species on that expedition. Gretna approached much of her life and, certainly her scientific life, as she did her passion for travel and exploration. She would return invigorated by her trips to far flung places that included Mont Blanc in Europe, Northern India, the wilds of South West Tasmania (from where an unscheduled helicopter ride brought Gretna and her broken leg back to civilisation!) and more recently South America. We were entranced by her almost unbelievable (for someone of her advancing age) stories rich with colour, time and space. Many of her travels were eloquently described over lunchtime slide shows in the Botany School at the University of Melbourne.

Her irrepressible drive, keen eye for detail and readiness to turn dogma on its head meant that she was a giant on the national and international plant pathology stage. Gretna was a female scientist in a discipline that for many years was male-dominated and she thus had strong views and convictions, which always added spice and controversy to any conversation. Gretna was a great entertainer and will be remembered for her annual (or often more frequent) dinners that brought to her home past and present students and colleagues, their spouses and families. Although Gretna officially retired from the University of Melbourne in 1983, she continued as a very active researcher for the next 20 years until her real retirement to Tasmania to be with family. Her extended field trips to the Grampians, Brisbane Ranges and Wilsons Promontory to examine and monitor the impact of disease caused by Phytophthora cinnamomi were infamous for their pre-dawn rises and then data collection until dusk. We were always accompanied by her travel-worn picnic case that was the mainstay of lean and hungry student assistants.

In the early days, Gretna almost single-handedly dragged Phytophthora cinnamomi out from being a mere forest tree pathogen (and therefore, to many, of only economic concern) to the status of a devastating environmental pathogen that, as a consequence of her continued work, is listed as a threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Gretna’s base was Victoria but her advice and knowledge were sought globally and exemplified by her role as Chair of the 4th International Congress of Plant Pathology and her appointment as an Honorary Fellow of the Society. Gretna was a loyal and constant contributor to the Australian Journal of Botany, where much of her earlier work on vegetation change caused by P. cinnamomi was published. She also published many papers in Australasian Plant Pathology, but in later years and with an expanding research group published in several international journals including Plant Physiology, Phytopathology and the Annual Review of Phytopathology.

Gretna was foremost a plant pathologist, but she was also an exceptional botanist and ecologist and a pretty good taxonomist, even though she often proclaimed not to have the desire or patience for ‘naming things’. If you travel out to the Brisbane Ranges inVictoria you can still find the sitewhere Gretna tried to stop the spread of disease caused by P. cinnamomi by filling with fungicide a 100-m trench downslope from infected vegetation. Unfortunately, unseasonal rainfall soon after, allowed zoospores to swim over the diluted fungicide into healthy forest below. P. cinnamomi is still not able to be controlled.

Gretna was a friend, colleague, mentor and ‘mate’ to many and will be sadly missed by all in the Australasian Plant Pathology Society and beyond, especially by those who have embraced Phytophthora. I trust that in some small way she has infected us all with some of her enthusiasm and passion for good science and great plant pathology. Gretna is survived by three children, six grandchildren and one great grandchild.

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Citation details

'Weste, Gretna Margaret (1917–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 July 2024.

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