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Sylvia Whincup numbers a crystal topaz from the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne. | Source: National Archives
Sylvia Whincup numbers a crystal topaz from the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne. | Source: National Archives

Gemmologists who changed the game: Sylvia Whincup

In the latest addition to Jeweller’s ‘Gemmologists who changed the game’ series, it’s time to shine a light on the contributions of Sylvia Whincup.

Born in 1921, Whincup was a pioneering female figure in earth sciences and gemmology in Australia. She graduated from Melbourne University in 1942 with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology and chemistry and completed her Master of Science in 1943.

She was married to Charles Reginald Whincup, a Royal Australian Air Force flight officer who died while serving in the Second World War. Whincup gave birth to their son, Peter Reginald Whincup, in 1944, the same year she published her master’s thesis. 

In 1946, Whincup was appointed a mineralogist at the National Museum in Melbourne.

Museums Victoria notes that she was the first person appointed to this official post and was tasked with reorganising and registering the museum's mineral and rock collection.

Her appointment received media coverage due to her specialised skillset and, in part, her success as a woman in such an important role.

A feature article about Whincup, 'Rocks Are Her Livelihood,' was printed in The Argus in July 1947. It describes her position at the museum as a "most remarkable job for a woman". 

Whincup expanded the museum's collections by sourcing mineral specimens and encouraging her colleagues to do the same.

In an article titled ‘Sylvia Whincup: A Prolific Collector and Groundbreaking Mineralogist’ written for Museums Victoria, Nik McGrath and Robert French reflected on the contribution made during her time at the museum.

The authors noted that Sylvia added more than 5,000 specimens to the collection, including 167 new species — an increase of over 30 per cent in just four years.

Whincup’s passion was evident in her work and the time she spent fossicking, and she frequently donated mineral specimens to the museum's collections. 

From the 1940s, the profession of gemmologist was becoming recognised within the Australian jewellery industry, and formal education pathways were beginning to emerge.

An initial course in gemmology was offered through the Federated Retail Jewellers Association (FRJA) until 1942-1943, before a dedicated institution, The Gemmological Association of Australia (GAA), was founded in October 1945. 

Whincup dedicated her time to the newly formed GAA, giving weekly lectures to members at the Melbourne branch. The Sciences Collections Online Coordinator for Museums Victoria, Dr Ursula Smith,reflected on Whincup’s legacy.

"She was keen to encourage people to visit the collections and learn about them and was instrumental in setting up the museum's first gem displays [and was] particularly interested in gemmology, training members of the Gemmological Association in gem identification,” writes Smith.

Whincup remarried in 1950 to Bob Whitehead, another geologist, with whom she would have two sons,Richard and Brian.

Unfortunately, this cut short her career at the National Museum of Victoria due to the imposed bar forbidding married women to work in the Commonwealth Public Service.

Whincup moved from Victoria to South Australia to work as a petrologist for BHP and the Australian Mineral Development Laboratories (AMDEL) until her retirement in 1981.

Whincup died on 12 November 2012. Today, the public can appreciate Whincup's contributions to the National Museum of Victoria through the extensive mineral collection, many of which she collected and donated.

She was a pioneering figure during a time when it was difficult for Australian women to progress professionally. She navigated personal tragedy and motherhood while trailblazing a career in the earth sciences.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Teaghan Hall

Teaghan Hall is a fine art graduate with a specialised interest in antique jewellery. She works in the antique jewellery trade and has written for various industry publications while studying with the Gemmological Association of Australia. For more information on gems and gemmology, visit www.gem.org.au

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