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The PhD: Doctor Mary

1 October 1949

1 October 1949 to July 1953

Unfortunately we have very few details of this time in Mary’s life. We have pieced together snippets from her academic files (Mary's official academic record is shown below), from one letter she wrote home to her parents, and from information contained in her later publications. 

15 December 1950
In a letter to her parents, sent from her lodgings at 14 James Street in Bangor, Mary writes:

I’ve often wondered since I’ve been here, eating good and nicely trimmed food, how they had the sauce to charge us 3 guineas a week for the sort of fare we had there [at the Marine Hotel] when Miss Hughes can do it (plus far more home comforts) for £3 and Monca’s landlady for 35/-. (Incidentally, Miss H used to own a home-made cake and confectioner’s shop – hence the professional touch). She has made scores of the most beautifully iced Xmas cakes for half the neighbourhood these last few weeks – they supply their own stuff and I’m fed on the very nice residues of icing and marzipan, etc, which don’t get back to where they came from.

Can’t remember when I last wrote so don’t know what I’ve told you – not that there’s much to tell.

Had a 1¾ hour bus ride across Angelsey to Holyhead last Saturday and walked miles along the cliffs under Holyhead mountain looking out to the Skerries lighthouse, which I’ve heard so much about from the Skokholm lighthousemen. Very calm and very lovely – just nothing but heather, bracken, rock, seaweed, birds and sea. Managed to go too far as usual and had to come back in the dark.

Had my first driving lesson in between snowstorms last Tuesday. Should have had another today but, although the snow is only an inch deep and the sun has been shining from a cloudless sky, making everything look like a picture, the roads have been covered with ice, which hasn’t melted all day so, of course, it had to be called off. I’ve had job enough to stay aboard my bicycle in some places. Am driving tomorrow if weather permits but I very much doubt if it will. If not, on Tuesday next.

Am very much banking on being able to persuade Pa to let me practise on G.M.T. [presumably a reference to the family car] now that I have had a whole lesson and am therefore no longer a beginner (I can even start on a hill without stopping).

Peter [Conder], in his last communication, offered me the post of Vice Warden on the island [Skokholm] for next year as the Vice Warden has resigned after five years’ service ... It means me being there from 20 March to 8 Oct with only two weeks’ break, however, so I have refused the offer as I may need to use the labs here or have a holiday or something. In any case it’s jolly cold there in March and April. I should probably have accepted last year when I was paying 4 guineas a week to be there but now that the Nature Conservancy is paying the whole cost, however long I stay, the need is not so great and I shall be at least £3 a week better off than when I’m in Bangor.

According to her book A Naturalist on Lundy, Mary had
deployed myself on Skokholm and the adjacent Welsh Island’s for my PhD thesis dealing with the effects of salty winds, hungry rabbits and clamorous seabirds on vegetation.

The official title of her thesis was ‘The Vegetation of the South Pembrokeshire Islands in relation to the environment’ and you can read the entire thesis by clicking on the link. Whilst undertaking her research Mary was supported partly by maintenance grants received from the F.E.T.S., the University of Wales and the Nature Conservancy, and the Council for the Promotion of Field Studies provided living facilities on Skokholm and boat transport to and from the islands.

23 June 1953
This was the date of the letter Mary received from the Registrar of University of Wales in Cardiff to tell her that she had satisfied the requirements and examiners and had been awarded her PhD.

Friday 17 July 1953 Graduation day
[In Cardiff] … we sunned ourselves in the gardens (myself feeling very spivish in black and white topped off with father’s funeral tie) until it was time to adjourn to the city hall for the occasion of the day.

In the robing room I found myself in a general mix-up of 65 or so male graduands and 2 or 3 females trying to sort the appropriate gowns from the pile on the table. Eventually I found mine, paid over the 30/- for the privilege of wearing it for an hour, and started puzzling over the method of donning the various bits. While I pondered, Professor Newton, down from Aberystwyth in her capacity as Principal, came to my rescue, getting me into the gold satin hood (which clashed violently with the crimson, gold-trimmed gown) and pointing out how not to wear a mortar board. At this point she was accosted as general steward by a misinformed graduand to whom it was gently indicated that she was concerned only with her special protegee.

Fully rigged, and feeling … somewhat of a clot, I joined up with two well-established members of the Aberystwyth staff, Drs Price and Jones, and we went into a huddle with others of our acquaintance, wondering what was to happen next. The promised instructions were not forthcoming, however, and we proceeded into the assembly hall in all our glory, hoping for the best.

After the admission of the BDs, MAs and MScs Principal Sir Emrys Evans of Bangor presented the Doctors of Philosophy to the Vice Chancellor of the university and the Pro-Chancellor, Lord Harlech. Professor Newton, my much appreciated botanical and philosophical guide, in her DSc’s scarlet and pink, was on the latter’s immediate left and made no attempt to conceal her gratification as her erstwhile student came forward to the dais….

The final presentation of 2 DScs and DD was followed by the two national anthems led by the Cardiff College Choir, and then we sallied forth onto the upper landing of the spaciously beautiful City Hall where everyone paid their respects to everyone else. Prof, with her usual charm, broke away from Sir John Russell and her other friends, to renew her acquaintance with my parents and Jeanne [Batchelor, a friend Mary knew from her early days at Aberystwyth in 1945], photographs were taken, robes returned and we adjourned to a restaurant for lunch. After the meal the party divided, the two older members remaining to spend a few more days looking round Glamorgan, while Jeanne and I drove the 113 miles to the furthest extremity of ‘Little England beyond Wales’.

Mary was heading for her annual stay on Skokholm – see the next Timeline entry for more on how she spent her summers during these years.