Born to a Greek family in Bombay, Marietta Pallis grew up in Liverpool in the 1890s, and aspired to be a ‘New Woman’: an educated, independent, feminist woman.
As a teenager, she bought herself a bicycle – a symbol of liberation – which she kept carefully hidden from her parents. When her father found it, he broke it with his bare hands. Her relationship with her father remained tense but he did let her go to Liverpool University to study botany and then to Newnham in 1909, where she studied ecology.
Whilst in Romania undertaking a comparative ecological study of the Danube and the Norfolk Broads , her field study became caught up in the Balkan war. She spent some time in her father’s native Greece nursing refugees, before returning to England.
Meanwhile, her family remained troubled by her ‘unfeminine’ behaviour. In an era where dress codes for men and women were much stricter, Marietta preferred to dress in trousers, tie and a field coat. She continued to challenge conventions around gender and sexuality, eventually meeting her life-long companion Phillis Clarke.
Marietta planned to expand her comparative study of wetland ecology to the Amazon, but could not get funding for her expedition. The First World War intervened, and she turned away from science, focusing on painting instead.
Buying a farm in Norfolk, near the Broads, she set out to use her knowledge of ecology to restore its biodiversity. However, this set her against local landowners at times – particularly in the Second World War. Instead of creating productive farmland to feed the British people, Marietta was ‘rewilding’.
She is best known today for her work on the origins of the Norfolk Broads, which were thought to be a natural landscape, but which we know now are the result of Medieval peat excavation. Much of the research on this came from Newnham Fellow Joyce Lambert. Pallis was initially very sceptical, but decided to kill two birds with one stone, creating a vast natural swimming pond, using Medieval techniques. The result was both a scientific publication supporting the manmade origins of the Broads – and a swimming pond in the shape of a double-headed eagle and the initials MP!
She died aged 81, and is buried with Phillis Clarke on the central island within her pool.