To Matilda Knowles: a woman’s life in lichen honoured in death

Knowles, who died in 1933, will be celebrated with a plaque at the National Botanic Gardens

The trouble with commemorative plaques is that you have to be dead to get one. One of the people who deserve to be honoured in their lifetime is Matilda Knowles.

Knowles died in 1933, but this Sunday her life and work will be honoured by a new plaque at the National Botanic Gardens. Better late than never.

She was an expert on lichens, those crusty growths you see on rocks, walls and trees. Significantly, she was the first person to recognise that, at the shore, lichens grow in distinct tidal bands or zones; she discovered this while studying lichens at Howth.

Knowles was the authority on Irish lichens, identifying hundreds of species across the country, and even discovering several species "new to science". Her magnum opus was The Lichens of Ireland, published in 1929 and running to 255 pages. It's a remarkable work: lichens can be unobtrusive, and the detail often microscopic, so clearly Knowles was a skilled and talented naturalist.


She also had a day job: caring for the dried and pressed specimens in the botanical collection – the "herbarium" – of the National Museum of Ireland. The museum was given that name only in 1921, although it was founded in 1877 and opened to the public in 1890.


Officially she was a technical assistant, but in practice, and for at least a decade, she was the curator, in charge of acquiring, identifying and assembling thousands of specimens from Ireland and around the world. The herbarium today is a testament to her dedication, and the new plaque is a welcome acknowledgement of her contribution.

Among those who donated specimens was Roger Casement, who brought rubber, coffee and cocoa plants from the Congo in 1904. Casement had known her from childhood: they were the same age (born in 1864), and grew up at Ballymena where Knowles was born and where Casement went to school. Those plants that Casement donated are still in the herbarium, with the labels Knowles wrote.

Many women in the late Victorian era were skilled botanists, so that side of Knowles’s story is not unusual: she learned about natural history from her father, joined the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club – which is still going strong – and later the Dublin Naturalists Field Club, where she regularly led outings.

However, her career path is more unusual. Intriguingly, already in her 30s, she and her sister Margaret moved to Dublin around 1900 and took some classes at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, a remarkable institution that admitted women equally when it opened in 1865.

One of her teachers, Prof Thomas Johnson, was also in charge of botany in the new museum and recruiting assistants to help with the work. Knowles was one of the first people employed there, initially as a temporary assistant, later promoted to “non-pensionable assistant”. That title now sounds almost begrudging.

In 1903, she published her first paper, on Indian ferns in the Irish collection. After Johnson retired in 1923, she took over his duties, yet was never officially recognised.

Feisty botanist

The current director of the botanic gardens, Dr Matthew Jebb, himself a former curator of the herbarium, acknowledges Knowles's remarkable work creating the collection, at a time when it was difficult for women, especially with the marriage bar.

Among those Knowles paved the way for was another feisty botanist, Dr Maura Scannell. Scannell fared somewhat better in the establishment, becoming curator of the herbarium. Like Knowles, she inspired another generation of botanists, and she wrote a short biography of Knowles that is in a collection I edited, called Stars, Shells and Bluebells.

In person, she was forthright and independent, never one to suffer fools. In later years she suffered from deafness and relied on an ear trumpet, using it to cut discussions short by placing it down firmly on her desk.

Knowles died of pneumonia in 1933, shortly before she was to retire. She never worked at Glasnevin – the herbarium moved there later – but, appropriately that’s where the plaque will be unveiled by Dr Éanna ní Lamhna. It marks 150 years since Knowles’s birth.

Then, next Tuesday is Ada Lovelace day, honouring women in science who have inspired us. Perhaps Matilda Knowles’s time has come at last.

Mary Mulvihill is a science writer. She tweets about Irish geek heritage at @IngeniousIE