We can be heroes…

Am I more receptive to stories of pioneering females or is it pure chance playing games?

That is unclear, but as I drove along the A470 yesterday morning to a meeting about the forthcoming ‘Explore your Archive: Wonder Women’ exhibition at the National Museum Wales, Radio 4’s Natural History Heroes came on and presented me with a fascinating 15 minute insight into Alice Eastwood – the curator of the California Academy of Science botany collection during the early 1900s – presented by Dr Sandra Knapp of the Natural History Museum.

As with all good stories, Alice’s is certainly worth sharing and if you get the chance to listen, I urge you to do so: Natural history Heroes – Alice Eastwood.

Alice Eastwood is credited with cataloging the type specimens (the example specimen for each species, akin to the reference weight used to calibrate other weights) found within the Californian Academy of Science and then, as California fell apart and fires spread after the 1906 earthquake she rescued these precious species and relocated them to a safe place away from city (she also spent over a year in the Yukon looking at willows, published over 310 scientific articles, guided Alfred Russel Wallace and rebuilt the California Academy of Science’s herbarium collection to three times the size it was pre-earthquake among many other things). A courageous, dedicated and talented botanist indeed!

Dr Knapp who presented the show is a formidable botanist herself having described over 75 species of plants, published over 175 papers and become a leading expert on the nightshade (Solanaceae) family (over 1000 species mind you!). It was lovely to not only hear the story of Alice Eastwood’s life but also to share Dr Knapp’s obvious enthusiasm and respect for one of her heroes.

Mary Gillham, our very own botanical hero, was similarly inspired by another great botanist. Professor Lily Newton, who contributed greatly to our knowledge of plant distribution and wrote the Handbook of British Seaweeds (1931) which detailed around 750 different species, was Mary’s supervisor at Aberystwyth University. The effect of Lily on Mary’s life was undoubtedly great as Mary’s book detailing her trip to Macquarrie Island (Sub-Antarctic Sanctuary, 1967) is dedicated to ‘Professor Lily Newton, who set my feet on the naturalist’s trail‘.

If there was even a shred of doubt as to Mary’s feelings toward Lily, last week when we were rooting through Mary’s archive we came across this Botanist’s Psalm written by Mary and extolling the virtues of her professor.

Botanist's Psalm
“Lily is my Professor, I shall not want another! She leadeth me forth into the Bogs of Tregaron. She maketh me to lie down in wet places. She prepareth an exam paper for me in collaboration with my enemies. My head she doth fill with confusion & my sweat runneth over. Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of failure, will I hope for no concession for she is with me, her rod and staff correcting me. Surely she will not follow me all the days of my life or must I dwell in the finals class forever?”


I wonder how many supervisors today receive such high affection? It is also intriguing to think about who from the current generation of botanists was inspired by Mary to cite her as their inspiration? We shall have to wait and see…

As we get a clearer picture of the contents of Mary’s archive we can tell more of these stories… And that is what we, and the National Museum Wales will be doing on November 19th. Come along to see us and learn more about some of the Wonder Women of Wales who worked to further knowledge, civilization and science.

4 thoughts on “We can be heroes…

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