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Parke, Mary Winifredlocked

  • G. E. Fogg

Mary Winifred Parke (1908–1989)

by Godfrey Argent

Godfrey Argent Studios / Royal Society

Parke, Mary Winifred (1908–1989), marine botanist, was born on 23 March 1908 in Bootle, Liverpool, second of the six children of William Aloysius Parke (1873–1925), partner in a company operating barges, and his wife, Mary Magdalene (1879–1968). She was educated at the Notre Dame Convent, Everton Valley, Liverpool, where, although showing promise as a pianist, she made biology her main interest, in spite of discouragement from her headmistress. Subsequently she entered Liverpool University, gaining its BSc with honours in botany and the Isaac Roberts Research Scholarship in 1929. A PhD followed in 1932 and a DSc in 1950. Her postgraduate research was supervised by Margery Knight. In 1930 she transferred to the University Marine Station at Port Erin, Isle of Man, where she was appointed as algologist.

Mary Parke's first publication, Manx Algae (1931), written in collaboration with Knight, served for long as a standard reference work. At the suggestion of the director of the station, she undertook investigation of the minute planktonic organisms on which oyster larvae were believed to feed. Her work eventually focused on hitherto undescribed micro-organisms, one of which proved spectacularly successful for rearing oyster larvae and came to be used worldwide in mariculture. However, the Second World War forced her to turn her attention to seaweeds: Britain was cut off from its wonted supplies of agar and alginate, needed in medicine and industry, and it became urgent to assess the British marine flora as a source of these materials. In 1941 Parke was seconded to Plymouth, where this work was organized by the Marine Biological Association. Her study of the growth and regeneration of the larger brown algae was a rigorous quantitative approach, setting a new standard in seaweed ecology. In 1947 she was appointed as botanist with the association and was to remain at Plymouth for the rest of her life. Resuming the work on minute plankton initiated at Port Erin, she described many new species and assembled an important culture collection. She established the ecological importance of these forms and in collaboration with Irene Manton, an accomplished electron microscopist, elucidated their fine structure, shedding light on the classification and phylogeny of the algae. Her Check-List of Marine Algae (1953), the third revision of which (1976) she published with P. S. Dixon, was used worldwide as a working document and model of taxonomic judgement. Altogether, she produced fifty-nine scientific papers, mostly in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association.

Mary Parke was always a rotund figure, but nevertheless agile on rocky shores. She was a Roman Catholic of deep convictions which were manifest in her friendly manner, high standards, and willingness to help those in distress or to undertake menial tasks. As the senior female member of staff, she had extra duties in organizing the common room and supervising the general cleanliness of the laboratory. Outside Plymouth her greatest contribution was in the British Phycological Society: she was a founder member, a council member and editor of its journal for many years, and president from 1959 to 1960. She was commemorated by the Mary Parke bursary, set up by this society and the Marine Biological Association to assist young students to work at marine laboratories. Her honours included corresponding membership of the Royal Botanical Society of the Netherlands (1970), membership of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters (1971), and the fellowship of the Royal Society (1972). Her own university conferred on her an honorary DSc in 1986, the ceremony taking place in the Plymouth laboratory, deemed for the occasion an outstation of the University of Liverpool, on account of her ill health. She never married. After retirement in 1973 she continued to live in Plymouth and, for some years, still worked in the laboratory. She died, after a short illness, from septicaemia on 17 July 1989 at her home, 6 Alfred Street, The Hoe. Her body was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.


  • G. T. Boalch and G. E. Fogg, Memoirs FRS, 37 (1991), 383–97
  • J. C. Green, ‘Mary Parke, FRS, 1908–1989’, British Phycological Journal, 25 (1990), 211–16
  • G. Boalch, ‘Mary Parke’, Prominent phycologists of the 20th century, ed. D. J. Garbary and M. J. Wynne (1996)
  • private information (2004)


  • Marine Biological Association, Plymouth


  • G. Argent, photograph, RS [see illus.]
  • D. Nicholson, photograph, repro. in Green, ‘Mary Parke’, 211

Wealth at Death

£117,544: probate, 28 Nov 1989, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Royal Society, London
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society