Obituaries: Shirley Jeffrey

(b 4 April 1930, d 4 January 2014)

Shirley Jeffrey AM FAA was born in Australia to English parents, who travelled the country to build her father’s career in an American oil company. At 15, her passion for science was sparked by a teacher, and then flared while reading a biography of Marie Curie.

Jeffrey entered The University of Sydney without science prerequisites, attending extra tutorials to catch up before starting classes. Finding inspiration in cell architecture, she majored in microbiology and biochemistry, receiving a BSc in 1952 and an MSc in 1954. This was followed by PhD studies at King’s College Hospital Medical School in London, where she wrote a thesis on the effect of aspirin on carbohydrate metabolism.

Upon her return to Australia in 1961, she joined the CSIRO Division of Fisheries and Oceanography, where she began researching her life’s work: pigmentation in microalgae. On a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley, Jeffrey discovered two new chlorophyll c pigments. This was followed by an invitation for a scientific expedition aboard the Alpha Helix, where her research led to a sabbatical at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1973, where she met Australian biologist and future husband Dr Andy Heron.

In the 1970s, the CSIRO Division of Fisheries and Oceanography was moved to The University of Sydney, where she established the Algal Culture Collection. She expanded research into microalgal taxonomy through collaboration with electron microscopist Dr Maret Vesk, and by the time the Division was moved back to Cronulla in 1977-78, Jeffrey’s research in the field was well established.

In 1981, Jeffrey was invited to become Acting Chief of the Division of Fisheries during the separation of the two components of the Division, a post she held for three years before returning to research. Before retiring in 1995, she was awarded the inaugural Jubilee Award of the Australian Marine Science Association in 1988, followed by election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1991, and becoming a Member of the Order of Australia in 1993. After retirement, Jeffrey was elected as a Foreign Associate of the American National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2000, and became the only non-American to be awarded the NAS Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal that same year. She then received the Australian Centenary Medal in 2003, and the Shinkishi Hatai Medal in 2007.

Jeffrey’s Algal Culture Collection has provided extensive benefits to the aquaculture industry in the past three decades, particularly assisting fish farming and providing a genetic map of toxic algae to aid monitoring programs.

Jeffrey served as a member of the Academy Council from 1994 to 1997 and was a member of the Sectional Committee for plant and microbial sciences from 1994 to 1997 and again from 1998 to 2002. She was interviewed as part of the Academy’s Interviews with Australian Scientists program.

Jeffrey is survived by her brother Tom and two sisters, Ann and Elizabeth.

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