Maria Wilman, botanist, archaeologist and museum director, was the fifth of nine daughters of Herbert Wilman and his wife Engela J. Neethling. In 1885 she completed her schooling at the Good Hope Seminary, Cape Town, matriculating through the University of the Cape of Good Hope, and that same year continued her studies at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She completed the natural science tripos in geology, mineralogy and chemistry in 1888 and then studied botany, particularly grasses. At that time the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to women, only certificates, and she had to wait until November 1931 before the degree Master of Arts (MA) was finally conferred upon her.
Soon after her return to the Cape Colony she started presenting the South African Museum, Cape Town, with small but varied collections of natural history specimens, for example, 17 species of marine shells from Mossel Bay (1897), two spiders, a scorpion and some shells (1898), several species of insects new to the museum and various other vertebrates and invertebrates (1899), eight moths new to the museum (1900), and a small collection of plants from George (1907). During November-December 1897 she assisted G.S. Corstorphine* in arranging the museum's geological collection as a volunteer. After further occassional voluntary work for the museum she was appointed assistant in the museum's Department of Geology and Mineralogy in June 1902. During the next few years she compiled a comprehensive bibliography, Catalogue of printed books, papers and maps relating to the geology and mineralogy of South Africa, to December 31, 1904, which was published as Volume 15, Part 5 of the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society (1905, pp. 283-467). It included publications on meteorites.
When the Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum (later the McGregor Museum) was founded in Kimberley in 1907 through a gift by Mrs Margaret McGregor, wife of a former mayor of Kimberley, Wilman was appointed as director. She held this post until her retirement in 1946. Before leaving Cape Town she discussed her plans for the museum with the donor. When she arrived in Kimberley in March 1908 the museum building was not ready yet, and the first exhibit cases arrived only in May. None the less she was able to open the museum to the public in September that year. She spent years exploring Griqualand West for museum specimens, encouraging amateurs from all walks of life to assist her. For example, she taught many diamond diggers to recognise and preserve bones and stone artefacts from the gravels of the Vaal and Hartz Rivers. Such was her dedication and success that at the time of her retirement the McGregor Museum could hold its own among the leading museums of South Africa.
From the beginning she gave attention to stone artefacts, rock paintings and prehistoric rock engravings. This work led to the first publication emanating from the museum, "Notes on some Bushman paintings in the Thaba Bosigo District, Basutoland", which appeared in the Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science for 1910. Further investigations were reported in an unpublished paper, "On the engraved stones of Bechuanaland and Griqualand West" (Ibid, 1914), and in two papers on "The engraved rock of Lo?, Bechuanaland Protectorate" (Ibid, 1918) and "The engraved rock of Kopeng and Lo?, Bechuanaland Protectorate" (Ibid, 1919). However, her most important publication on the subject was The rock engravings of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland, South Africa (Cambridge, 1933, reprinted in 1968), with 70 plate plus text figures. The field work on which this book was based, most of it confined to week-ends, covered a period of 24 years and was carried out with financial assistance from the Royal Society of South Africa. Publication of the book was financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
In 1927 Wilman and Neville Jones introduced the term "Middle Stone Age" and argued in favour of a local (rather than European) archaeological terminology. Among the items she acquired for the museum were a number of Bushman skeletons, which were later studied by Dr Robert Broom*. She was a lifelong friend of the Bushman linguist Miss Dorothea Bleek and accompanied the latter on a collecting trip into the Kalahari in October 1911. Later she assisted in editing a series of seven books, Bantu tribes of South Africa: reproductions of photographic studies (1928-1941), based on numerous photographs taken by A.M. Duggan-Cronin. His collection of photographs was later acquired by the museum.
The last of her publications issued by the museum was a Preliminary check list of the flowering plants and ferns of Griqualand West (Cambridge, 1946, 381p). This excellent guide to the plants of the region was based on some 30 years of field work and included notes, based on living plants, relating to localities, habitats, flowering season and the names of collectors. Most of the identifications were done by Mrs H.M.L. Bolus* and her staff at the Bolus Herbarium, University of Cape Town. Wilman continued to send plants to the herbarium until two years before her death. She was an ardent gardener and in addition to the museum garden planted a rock garden some 400 meters in length along one boundary of Kimberley's Public Gardens. She exchanged plants and seed with botanists in several other countries, for example, she introduced the mesquite tree (Prosopis juliflora) to South Africa and distributed great quantities of grass seed, both for pasturage and for soil restoration, to Mexico, the United States, South America and St Helena. A strain of Eragrostis curcula that she sent to the United States was particularly successful there and came to be know as "Wilman's lovegrass". When she retired the museum herbarium contained about 7000 sheets. The plant species Watsonia wilmaniae, Stapelia wilmaniae, Ruschia wilmaniae, Hereroa wilmaniae, Euphorbia wilmaniae and Eragrostis wilmaniae were named in her honour, as was the South African marine mollusc Siliquaria wilmanae.
In 1898 Wilman became a member of the South African Philosophical Society and remained a member (later a life member) of its successor, the Royal Society of South Africa. In 1903 she became a member (later a life member) of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and was elected on its council in 1918.
Wilman was devoted to her work and showed great perseverance in reaching her goals. In 1939 the University of the Witwatersrand conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree upon her during the chancellorship of J.H. Hofmeyer, a close personal friend. She retired as director of the museum at the end of 1946, aged 79, and was succeeded by Mr J.H. Power*. However, she continued to work at the museum until 1951. In the latter part of 1953 she broke a thigh-bone, an unfortunate incident from which she never recovered. A few years after her death the South African Association for the Advancement of Science collected funds to erect a memorial plaque to her in the McGregor Museum.