The couple behind an 'aggie dynasty'
The Thomas family from left: Dave, Andy, Geoff, Mary,
Ben and Steve When Geoffrey and Mary Thomas graduated from the University of Adelaide in agricultural science 51 years ago, little did they know they were starting an ‘aggie dynasty’.
It was agricultural science that first brought them together and it has remained an important feature of their family since – with five more ‘aggies’ among their sons and daughters-in-law. Back in 1964, Mary (nee Wauchope) and friend Primula Haas were the only women among the fourth-year agricultural science students at the University and they were only the second and third to graduate with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science.
“It was a small group and we were always treated with respect and as equals,” says Mary. “I originally thought I would like to study medicine but the broad subjects offered in agricultural science were exciting and I was always interested in insects, fungi and plants so the choice was easy.
“We were fortunate to have Professor Morton who was working in the then cutting edge area of DNA. I was captivated by his work and so started my interest in agricultural biochemistry.”
In her fourth year Mary was the first woman to be granted a cadetship with the Department of Agriculture, giving her career certainty.
“This provided acceptance in what was a male-dominated field and gave me the opportunity to do practical research which I enjoyed,” she says.
Mary started in the horticulture branch of the department, working across all fields as a plant pathologist. She was instrumental in solving the problem of ryegrass staggers and recorded work on onion smut and prune rust in stone fruits.
“I greatly enjoyed the varied work and visiting the affected paddocks at Black Springs, although I remember a very obstinate transport clerk who always assigned me a short-wheelbase Land Rover with no fuel and on two occasions, bald tyres,” she recalls.
And with females in the field a rarity, there were other challenges for Mary who was treated with some scepticism by many horticulturalists and farmers.
“I remember the Barossa bureau conference where I had addressed a large group of vine and stone fruit producers and the vote of thanks at the end commented that it was an interesting topic and a good talk, ‘especially as I was a woman’,” says Mary.
When Mary and Geoff married in 1966, she had to seek parliamentary approval to continue working as an advisor at Loxton. Following a period away from the workforce after starting a family in 1968, Mary moved into different areas of work, including juice quality control, biological control of red scale and teaching at three Riverland high schools.
She returned to Adelaide and found work in a busy garden nursery where her ability to identify plants and treat diseases and pests made her very popular with clients. Geoff came to the University from a farm at Pinnaroo in the Murray Mallee and had always been interested in studying agriculture. He recalls the halcyon days of university in the 1960s with fondness.
“I enjoyed studying with a great group of people and appreciated the commitment shown by the lecturers. The breadth and depth of the course set me up for a very fulfilling career, working with farmers and fellow scientists,” says Geoff.
Following graduation he joined the SA Department of Agriculture as a cadet and was posted to Loxton in 1965 as a soils officer, working in broadacre and horticulture. In 1969 the family travelled to Melbourne where Geoff did a Diploma of Agricultural Extension under a Wheat Industry Scholarship and in 1970 he was posted to Naracoorte as a Research Extension Liaison Officer.
After a spell with the Victorian agricultural department he returned to SA and held various posts before leaving the public sector in 1994 to become CEO of the Adelaide Hills Regional Development Board for five years. Geoff also ran his own consultancy from 1999, working in the commercialisation of technology and funds management in research and extension.
Mary and Geoff’s four sons all went to university, three of them studying agriculture at the University of Adelaide and two of them going on to marry other ‘aggies’. They now have nine grandchildren.
“There was certainly no pressure for them to follow in our footsteps,” says Geoff. “But they were probably influenced by our wide-ranging family discussions and from observing our diverse, challenging and rewarding careers.”
And the ‘aggies of ’65’ have maintained a family-like closeness, coming together for reunions over the years to reminisce over their shared experiences. Geoff and fellow graduate Tim Smeaton recently compiled a memoir which includes biographies and photos of their classmates. It’s an impressive catalogue of interesting and productive careers that were founded in the lecture rooms and labs of the University 50 years ago.
Story by Genevieve Sanchez