Miss Olive Muriel Pink – 1884 – 1975
Miss Olive Muriel Pink was an extraordinary individual – she contributed to the development of the field of anthropology, campaigned vigorously for the rights of Aboriginal Australians long before it was fashionable to do so, was an accomplished artist, and was the visionary force behind the development of the first Arid Zone Botanic Garden in the southern hemisphere.
Miss Pink did not arrive in Alice Springs until she was well in to her forties, arriving first in 1930 on an extended sketching holiday in which she travelled on the Ghan railcar and stopped off at various railway sidings where she set up camp to sketch wildflowers. The University of Tasmania has an excellent website that showcases a significant collection of Miss Pink’s wildflower sketches.
Over the next decade Miss Pink visited Central Australia several times, living variously on the outskirts of Alice Springs or in the Tanami Desert where she undertook some of the significant early anthropological studies of Arrernte and Warlpiri people. She published some of her research in well-respected anthropological journals, but she never formally completed her academic thesis due to a combination of ill health during her fieldwork, competition for the same Aboriginal informants with more established anthropologists, and withdrawal of university support for her research.
From 1942-1946 Miss Pink lived with Warlpiri people at Thompson’s Rockhole in the Tanami Desert, where she attempted to set up a ‘secular sanctuary’ for Warlpiri – a campaign that engaged her considerable lobbying skills and consumed a significant amount of her time over the rest of her life. Returning to Alice Springs in 1946, she purchased a decommissioned army hut on Gregory Terrace and lived there for the next decade, surviving on a meagre income obtained from selling flowers and fruit that she grew, and from her part-time job cleaning the courthouse.
In October 1956, at the age of 72, she set up her tent on the grounds of what is now Olive Pink Botanic Garden and lobbied NT politicians vigorously to establish a Flora Reserve on the site in order to protect native flora and provide a site where locals could visit and learn about desert environments. The Arid Regions Native Flora Reserve was gazetted in 1956, and Miss Pink was appointed as Honorary Curator, a role she maintained until her death on 6th July 1975.
Miss Pink’s hut was rebuilt within the Reserve on the site now occupied by the Visitor Centre, and she moved into this slightly more comfortable accommodation in 1958. Many of the letters she wrote over the next 20 years were addressed form “Home Hut” and there are many stories of favoured locals or dignitaries who were invited to afternoon tea with Miss Pink at Home Hut. The fare was often tea or lime juice cordial with madeira cake – a tradition retained in the ritual celebration for Miss Pink’s birthday at the Garden each year.
During her time at the Garden, Miss Pink and her Warlpiri gardener of many years, Johnny Jampijinpa Yannarilyi, planted various local native trees and shrubs as well as an eclectic collection of garden flowers, agaves and other introduced plants on her quarter acre block around her hut. One of Miss Pink’s favourite plants seems to have been the Sturt Bean Tree (or Batswing Coral Tree: Erythrina vespertilio) and she planted over 30 of these trees from seed she collected from Aileron Station in the 1960s. In her diary notes she recorded names of various dignitaries against individual trees, and at least two of these named trees still survive in the Garden today (despite the fact that this species is very frost sensitive and not very well suited to our cold winters).
An excellent biography of Miss Pink has been written by Professor Julie Marcus. Entitled The indomitable Miss Pink – a life in anthropology the biography covers Miss Pink’s life in Central Australia in particular detail. The following information provides a summary of Miss Pink’s life – particularly her work and life in Central Australia. Born in 1884 in Hobart, Olive Muriel Pink developed a love of nature early in life and went on to study art first in Hobart Technical College, and later when her family moved to Sydney studied art in Julian Ashton’s School of Art.