Dr Mary Noble

Share this article

Dr Mary Jessie McDonald Noble, scientist, botanist and historian

Born: 23 February, 1911, in Edinburgh

Died: 20 July, 2002, in Lasswade, aged 91

THE scientific and local history communities, national and international, have been saddened by the death of Mary Noble; indeed, the richness of society as a whole has been reduced by a measurable degree.

Her parents were both Leithers. Her father had a chemist and druggist shop at Gladstone Place for over 50 years. It was he, a former student in Glasgow of the eminent botanist Professor PO Bower, who introduced Mary to botany.

Mary was a pupil at The Mary Erskine School for nine years from 1920, before going to Edinburgh University, where she gained a BSc with honours in Botany. In 1935 she received a PhD under the tutelage of the mycologist and plant pathologist Dr Malcolm Wilson - she kept in touch with his family until her death. Her doctorate studies covered mycological aspects of seed pathology, which was to become one of her abiding interests, and her thesis gained her the Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize.

After leaving university, she joined the plant pathology service of the then Board of Agriculture, which was based at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

She retired in 1971 as a principal scientific officer, in charge of seed pathology and mycology, at what had become the Agricultural Scientific Services of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, now based at East Craigs, Edinburgh. In 1968 she became a Companion of the Imperial Service Order in recognition of her scientific work for the department.

Mary’s main activities in her working career were concerned with plant, and especially seed, pathology. Her abilities and knowledge were recognised by her election as Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1958, and by her service as a councillor of both the British Mycological Society and the Association of Applied Biologists, and she was a vice-president of the BMS in 1969. She was also editor of BMS’s Bulletin (now The Mycologist) from 1972-78. She was a member of the International Seed Testing Association’s plant pathology committee from 1950-1971, and in 1958 produced, with Dr Paul Neergaard and Dr Jo deTempe, the authoritative annotated list of seed-borne diseases, a fourth edition of which was published by the ISTA in 1990.

Her long involvement with the ISTA continued after her "retirement" and in 1982 she was elected president of the First International Symposium of Seed Pathology held in Denmark, a country with which she had fond connections through her collaboration with Paul Neergaard, founder and director of the Danish government Institute of Seed Pathology for Developing Countries.

That organisation provided a springboard for Mary’s travels all over the world, where she was a great ambassador for seed pathology, lecturing and running workshops in India, the Philippines, Australia, Argentina, Costa Rica and Israel.

Apart from her ISTA publications, including the development of the ISTA Handbook of Seed Health Testing, her scientific publications included several popular accounts of plant diseases, and others, often with collaborators, covered such wide-ranging topics as blind seed disease of ryegrass, stem eelworm of strawberry, various cereal diseases, blackleg, verticillium wilt and coiled shoot of potatoes, farmer’s lung, and wart disease of potatoes, all of which were of great importance to Scottish agriculture at the time she worked on them.

During the Second World War, she spent time surveying flax fields in the west of Scotland to check the health of crops - disease in the flax could have affected production of linen, which was used for covering aircraft wings.

Her later energies were devoted to a much broader spectrum of interests, albeit with mycological connections. In planning for retirement, she made the move a few years before to be opposite the 19th hole of Broomieknowe golf course at Bonnyrigg, where she had played for many years and where a hole is named after her. Eventually, her failing knees prevented her playing golf, but the Beatrix Potter story took over.

In 1975, the Botanical Society of Edinburgh (now Scotland) celebrated the centenary of the incorporated Cryptogamic Society of Scotland. It was for these celebrations that Mary researched the life of Charles Mcintosh, a well-known Perthshire naturalist who, although a regular postman, contributed considerably to our understanding of Scottish cryptogams. She brought his contribution to a wider audience, and in so doing stumbled across a strong connection with Beatrix Potter. This single event changed the face of "Potterism" not only in Britain but worldwide, and focused Mary’s energies.

She reinstated Beatrix Potter in the public domain as a mycologist as well as a popular but at the time rather out of fashion writer of children’s books, and showed that she was an accurate observer, a competent illustrator and an able scientific thinker.

Mary was in great demand as a speaker and writer on Beatrix Potter’s mycology, and co-authored A Victorian Naturalist - Beatrix Potter’s Drawings from the Armitt Collection. She uncovered many outstanding details of information about that amazing lady - it is a shame they never met!

It does not, however, stop there. During all this time, she was active in the Scottish Rock Garden Club (where she developed a passion for heathers), the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, from whom she received the Neill Prize in 1973, and the National Trust for Scotland.

She played an important role in the establishment of Suntrap, at Gogarbank, and visited there regularly to help staff and public deal with plant pathology inquiries.

Her ability to harass and pressurise in a firm but friendly way to right what she felt had been neglected, as exemplified in dealings in connection with Potter and SNT, reaped its reward.

No better example than nearer home, where an old cemetery (another of her interests) of great historic significance had been allowed to fall into ruin. Almost single-handedly, the importance of the site and those buried there was demonstrated and thoroughly documented, which saw before her death a rekindling of interest in the burial ground, which goes back to the 13th century. One connection with the site was the Drummond family, some of whom emigrated to Australia - and, yes, some were botanists, and one a mycologist. The circle is closed.

Mary Noble had a vast breadth of information and knowledge, but only some of this was committed to paper. The rest has sadly been lost with her death.

She outlived a single brother John (Eoin) by a few months, and was aunt to Sandra, Gillian, Fiona and Alastair. She will be sadly missed by family and the many, many friends she made in all her walks of life.

More from News