Born in South Africa in 1911, she spent much of her working life in Africa. She was an only child born of Scottish parents in Pretoria and, as she recalled, ran free in the bush from a house behind the Parliament building there. It was not a house of luxury, even though her father was Under-Secretary for Justice in the then Union of South Africa, but a strict, religious home. Her birthday celebrations consisted of a birthday tea and being told that a sum of money had been sent to the local orphanage.
She went away to secondary school at the Collegiate School for Girls in Port Elizabeth, a long journey alone on the train. In later years she had difficulty coping with people who were always late. You see, she would say, they were not brought up to the fact that, if they missed the train, it would be three days before there was another.
It seems as if Margaret Keay long had an eye on Cambridge, for she had discovered that Cape Town degrees were recognised by Cambridge University. At Cape Town she was taught by women members of staff who had been to Cambridge, so she knew that if she was to successfully complete a higher degree there she would only be awarded the title of the degree. Undaunted, she completed a degree in Botany, then a Secondary Teachers Certificate (with distinction), before arriving at Newnham College in 1934 to work in the then Botany School as a research student under Professor F.T. Brooks in Mycology and Plant Pathology.
The Botany School had fewer than a dozen research students at that time so they were a close-knit community. Newnham had strict ideas about how its members should conduct themselves - they even had to pass a punting proficiency test on the Upper Cam before being allowed to punt along the Backs.
Her first post was as Research Assistant in the Department of Agricultural Biology at Reading University, later promoted to lecturer in 1943. Reading was followed by a time in Norfolk, researching diseases of flax, at that time an important constituent of parachute harnesses. At the end of the Second World War she returned to Cambridge to work with the then Commonwealth Potato Collection which was attached to the School of Agriculture of the university. Britain was in the gloomy period of the post-war depression and rationing, and indeed bread rationing was still in force. Keay would sometimes appear at my mother-in-law's door with one or two potatoes surplus to experimental requirements.
During this time, Keay joined a pressure group, based on the Women Graduates Club, calling for the foundation of a third college for women at the university (Girton and Newnham were the only colleges open to women). It was a source of considerable satisfaction to her that first New Hall and later, Lucy Cavendish, came into being.
In 1954 she was appointed to Makerere College at Kampala, Uganda (later redesignated Makerere University College as part of the University of East Africa and now Makerere University), as Reader in Agricultural Botany in the newly founded Faculty of Agriculture. Makerere was a challenge as it upgraded itself, first to a constituent college of London University, then as one of the three components of the University of East Africa. Keay was appointed Head of the new Department of Agicultural Biology after just six years.
She was no push-over, requiring to be convinced by reasoned argument and accurately estimated costs when her staff put forward proposals for teaching or research. Her famous duplicate book was in evidence here. For every note she wrote on departmental matters there was a dated carbon copy. No use saying that you did not know this or that, she had the evidence to prove otherwise.
She also expected good standards of dress and behaviour. Passing a colleague in the corridor whom she perceived to be inappropriately dressed, she enquired, "Just off to change before your lecture?" For men, a tie (even with short-sleeved shirts) and properly cut and laundered shorts (with knee-length stockings) were de rigueur.
She was a very effective lecturer and teacher, giving degree courses in plant systematics and morphology, climatology, lower plants and micro- organisms as well as plant pathology and the botany of East African crop plants.
She was elected to the College Council, and served as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture for the academic year 1962-63. She was Convenor of the Scholarships Committee of the Uganda Association of University Women and was closely associated with the establishment of the bursary fund for the secondary education of girls in Uganda, as well as being a member of the Uganda Foundation for the Blind.
After 10 years at Makerere, and knowing that her academic progress there was blocked, she moved to Northern Nigeria as Senior Plant Pathologist in the Institute for Agricultural Research and Special Services at Ahmadu Bello University. Her section was responsible for research and specialist advisory work on plant disease problems in the Northern States. Her teaching and administrative abilities were quickly recognised by her appointment in 1968 to the Chair and Headship of a newly established Department of Crop Protection.
Nigeria was unsettled at this time and frequent road blocks were encountered whilst travelling. While driving to the Jos Plateau to collect examination materials, she was stopped at a road block, the car and her luggage thoroughly searched. On her return journey, she was stopped at the same place by the same soldiers. She offered to open her suitcase - "No need, Madam, we know the colour of your slippers."
On retirement from Ahmadu Bello University in 1971, aged 60, she was awarded a Resettlement Fellowship by the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas tenable at Wye College, in Kent, part of London University. A year later, Margaret Keay was appointed Academic Assistant to the Principal and Dean of Women Students at Wye College. She retired in 1976, having been made an honorary life member of Wye College Union Society.
From August 1976, she was offered "desk space" in the Department of Applied Biology at Cambridge, where she remained in association with a wide range of biologists working on post-harvest biology problems, until it closed in September 1989.
Retirement did not stop a continuous stream of visitors beating a path to her door for discussion, academic debate, advice or a friendly chat. Her visitors were of all ages, for one of her great attributes was a lifelong interest in "the young". She had an imposing presence and a strong voice, which frightened more than just young children.
It was a fitting memorial that at her funeral service the benediction included the following from a card above her desk: "Learn widely, Inquire minutely, Think carefully, Discuss clearly, AND Practise earnestly" (Confucius, 551-479 BC).
Margaret Agnes Keay, plant pathologist: born Pretoria, South Africa 11 June 1911; Reader in Agricultural Botany, Makerere College, Kampala (later Makerere University College) 1954-64, Head of Department 1960-64, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture 1962-63; Senior Plant Pathologist, Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University 1964-68, Professor, and Head of the Department of Crop Protection 1968-71; OBE 1972; Academic Assistant to the Principal, and Dean of Women Students, Wye College 1972-76; Associate, Newnham College, Cambridge 1974-98; died Cambridge 26 October 1998.Reuse content