Irish female botanists who blossomed against the odds
Trailblazers are to be remembered in a public talk
Lady Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe with her husband. Photograph by permission of the director of National Botanic Gardens
Historically, women have not always had the easiest time in the sciences. Yet some female scientists still blazed a trail in botany, and three of them will feature in an upcoming talk by historian Charlotte Salter-Townshend at the National Botanic Gardens next month.
Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) is widely regarded as the first female botanist in Ireland, and she achieved much in her relatively short life, according to Salter-Townshend, who works at the gardens in Glasnevin.
“She made a great contribution to botany through her collections and drawings,” she says. “She focused on nonflowering plants, particularly groups such as seaweed and lichens. These were a little more difficult to study and were relatively neglected at the time compared with the flowering plants.”
Her native west Cork offered Hutchins a natural diversity of specimens to study, but it also meant she was somewhat isolated and she received few visits in person from other botanists, says Salter-Townshend.
“That said, she was a great letter writer. She corresponded with notable botanists and she contributed to the floras, the lists of [known and described] plant species.”
After the mid-19th century it became more of a challenge for women to forge their way in botany, says Salter-Townshend: “You had to be professionally trained to get recognition and to be remembered, but it was more difficult for women to get the training.”
Irish botanist Matilda Knowles (1864-1933) ploughed ahead and studied at the Royal College of Science for Ireland before working with the Natural History Museum, eventually acting as curator of the herbarium collection for the last decade of her life.
“She was one of the first female professional botanists and had a particular interest in lichens, recording many new species in Ireland,” says Salter-Townshend. “Collections of her notebooks survive, as well as some lovely specimens, such as wool that has been dyed with lichens.”
Another female plant hunter of note went farther afield to explore the botanical world. Lady Charlotte Wheeler- Cuffe (1867-1967) was born in England but had Irish roots, as did her husband, whose posting in Burma meant she spent several years there painting and analysing plants.
“She is the exotic one,” says Salter-Townshend. “When you think of plant hunters you think of far-flung spots, and she is the one here that ticks that box.”
While abroad, Wheeler-Cuffe became the first person to describe a white-flowered rhododendron she found at Nat Ma Taung (then called Mount Victoria), which was given the species name Rhododendron cuffeanum.
Salter-Townshend became interested in the stories of the three botanical ladies when she started to work as a guide at the National Botanic Gardens and could delve into the historical collections stored there.
- Charlotte Salter-Townshend ’s talk on Saturday, December 5th, will feature photographs, artwork and displays by the botanical pioneers. No booking needed. More details on http://botanicgardens.ie/news/events.htm
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