Irish botanist Matilda Knowles honoured after 150 years

13 Oct 2014

The plaque at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin to honour the work of naturalist and botanist Matilda Knowles (1864-1933)

One of the world’s great lichen experts of the 20th century, Irishwoman Matilda Knowles, has been honoured with a commemorative plaque at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin 150 years after her birth.

Knowles made a number of important scientific discoveries during her academic career including the discovery of several new species of lichens, and was the first to realise that lichens by the seashore grow in distinct tidal zones.

During her 30 years of research, she worked at the herbarium in the National Museum in Dublin and for the last 10 years she was essentially the curator of the museum, but was sadly only deemed worthy of the title of ‘assistant’.

Knowles was one of Ireland’s busiest publishers of botany literature having begun the study of lichens in Ireland around 1903 after being encouraged by the great Irish naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger.

Matilda Knowles. Image: Women’s Museum of Ireland.

She went on to become the acknowledged expert on Irish lichens, and in 1929 published the definitive guide to Irish lichens, a 255-page catalogue of over 800 species, including some 100 ‘new to Ireland’ and several species that were ‘new to science’ which she had discovered.

The new plaque is the latest in a series organised by WITS (the Women in Technology and Science network) and the National Committee for Science and Engineering Commemorative Plaques (NCSECP) and speaking of the importance of Knowles’ work, chairperson of WITS, Dr Marion Palmer, said it was important that she be remembered.

“It is so important to acknowledge the critical role played by women such as Matilda Knowles. So often their work went unnoticed and unacknowledged at the time, it’s right that we honour them now,” said Dr Palmer.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic