Beth GOTT (1922 - 2022)

Senior Lecturer, Department of Botany (1987 - 1989)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains an image and information about people who have died.

Beth Gott

Renowned ethnobotanist Beth Gott, who has died aged 99, was born to be a scientist. In primary school she recalled explaining to her companions exactly why Father Christmas couldn’t exist, due to the lack of empirical evidence.

Instead, the alchemy that excited her took place in the cells and structures of organic matter. From a young age she understood that the survival of humanity hinged on the silent, magical work of plants.

Beth went on to dedicate her working life to botanical research, developing a deep understanding of Victorian Indigenous communities and their thousands of years of plant knowledge. Her research revealed the amazing powers of healing and nourishment that existed in the leaves, stems and roots of  plants as well as their capacity for harm (Burke and Wills, for instance, starved to death after eating the Indigenous plant food Nardoo, which they mistakenly believed to be nutritionally adequate.)

Beth was the first person to develop a comprehensive database of Aboriginal plant food knowledge, revealing a huge array of Australian plants that are edible. The plant which particularly captured her imagination was the humble murnong – or yam daisy – a small, dandelion-like plant which at one time was the staple food of the Indigenous people in Victoria. Her 1983 paper on the subject stands as a landmark in Australian ethnobotany for highlighting its importance for the first time.

In 2007, at the age of 84, Beth developed the Aboriginal Garden at the Clayton Campus, containing 150 species of plants, each labelled with its Indigenous name (where known), as well as English and botanical equivalents, and the plant’s medicinal, practical or culinary uses. It was a project which began decades earlier after she first arrived at Monash in the early 1980s as a botanist, before being appointed a senior lecturer in botany in 1987. Near the southwest corner of the botany building she planted the first tiny water-ferns with leaves like a four-leaf clover; the seemingly innocent Nardoo.

Though Beth reached the then standard academic retirement age of  65 during 1987, her lectures and practical classes were so enthusiastically received, and her contribution to Monash was seen as so “extraordinary”, that her contract was extended at the end of the year.

In 1992 she was made an honorary research associate in the Department of Botany and Zoology and in 1995 became a research fellow after being awarded a grant by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

During her career, Beth engaged in many debates and disagreements with academic colleagues such as ecologists, archaeologists, historians, and scientists and was not afraid to challenge the epistemological foundations of their research regarding the Aboriginal people and their relationship with the land.

In 1989 her work took a forensic twist when she was drawn in to helping solve the mystery of “the body in the bag”. Two boy scouts exploring a cave at Springfield Gorge, near Lancefield, discovered the remains of a young Indigenous woman which had been placed in a net bag about 300 years ago. Working in conjunction with the Archaeological Survey and the National Museum, Beth was called in to identify the fibres used to make and tie up the bag. Her painstaking work revealed it was made from the blue flax lily and the inner bark of the wattle.

Beth’s prodigious interest in Indigenous culture and the use of native plants had its roots in childhood. Growing up as Margaret Beth Noye in Moonee Ponds she enjoyed listening to stories of Indigenous life from her grandmother who would tell Beth tales of her great-grandfather. He had lived on the Murray River in the very early days of colonial settlement at Swan Hill, and enjoyed very good relationships with Australia’s First Peoples.

After leaving school, Beth studied botany at Melbourne University, gaining a BSc in 1942, and an MSc in 1946. In 1951 she was awarded a PhD from Imperial College London, where her initial research topic was the life-cycle of rye cereals. She later continued her work back in Melbourne, studying Australian wheat varieties.

Beth’s first husband, Clifford Wilson Serpell, an RAAF navigator, died in an air crash north of Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar) in March, 1944, and the plane and crew were never recovered.

In 1948 at Battersea Registry Office in London, Beth married Ken Gott, a leading activist of the Left, journalist and friend of Overland founder, Stephen Murray-Smith, who, along with his wife, Nita, were witnesses at their wedding. Afterwards they headed to Prague, until they became disillusioned with communism and returned to Australia. The marriage was, in her own words “a meeting of true minds without impairment" and her metaphor for their togetherness was the merging of their libraries.

But Melbourne in the 1950s wasn’t an easy place to juggle the roles of academic, mother-of-three and wife. Prams weren’t allowed on the trams at peak hour, and Beth had to engage in subterfuge just to get to work. She’d disguise the stroller by stuffing it in a large bag, to confuse the ticket inspector, and board the tram with a child under her arm.  When Ken died in 1990, Beth was bereft, initially struggling to find people to talk to, saying “my husband and I were really ‘word’ people you know”.

Beth wrote many papers on the use of Indigenous plants in south-east Australia and taught at universities in the US and Hong Kong before joining Monash. She was guided by a simple realisation; that plant foods and managing the environment were vital to people’s survival. As she put it: “you don’t live in an environment for thousands of years without knowing how to use it.”

Her work corrected many misguided assumptions about traditional Indigenous ways of life. She showed how controlled burning was used to cultivate fresh plants and attract animals, and other land management practices kept their numbers and food resources in balance.

In 2017 Beth was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the biological sciences as an ethnobotanist. But another title of which she was equally proud was that of “Auntie”, bestowed by members of the Indigenous community in recognition of the esteem in which she was held.

Beth continued to work as an honorary research fellow at Monash well into her nineties. “Forget about looking for life on other planets,” she would urge, “we have another sort of life here on earth without which we could not survive, so we must value and protect it.”

Dr Beth Gott’s son, Jim, predeceased her. She is survived by her daughters Margaret and Miranda, her five grandchildren, and by the many who knew and honoured her as an Auntie.

Beth Gott was born on July 25 1922 and died on July 8 2022.

Edited version of article published 26 July 2022 and in The Insider, 29 July 2022.