seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Matilda Cullen Knowles, Pioneer in Irish Lichenology

matilda-cullen-knowlesMatilda Cullen Knowles, considered the founder of modern studies of Irish lichens following her work in the early twentieth century on the multi-disciplinary Clare Island Survey, is born on January 31, 1864 in Cullybackey near Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Her work is said to have “formed an important baseline contribution to the cryptogamic botany of Ireland and western oceanic Europe.”

Knowles’ early interest in botany is encouraged by her father, William James Knowles, himself an amateur scientist who takes Matilda and her sister to meetings of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club. This is where she first meets Robert Lloyd Praeger who continues to be a lifelong influence. In 1895 she is introduced to the Derry botanist Mary Leebody and together they work on a supplement to Samuel Alexander Stewart‘s and Thomas Hughes Corey‘s 1888 book the Flora of the North-east of Ireland.

Knowles then volunteers to help with the crowdsourcing of material about the plants of County Tyrone. While completing this work Knowles publishes her own first paper about Tyrone’s flowering plants in 1897. She eventually sends in over 500 examples that are considered for inclusion in the Irish Topographical Botany, which Praeger publishes in 1901.

In 1902, after attending the Royal College of Science for Ireland for a year, Knowles is appointed a temporary assistant in the then Botanical Section of the National Science and Art Museum. She works closely with Professor Thomas Johnson to continue the development of the Herbarium collection. She also co-authors with him the Hand List of Irish Flowering Plants and Ferns (1910).

One of Knowles’ first works is The Maritime and Marine Lichens of Howth, which the Royal Dublin Society publishes in 1913. Knowles had gathered the knowledge and experience to do this while diligently assisting with a survey of Clare Island as suggested by Praeger. This novel survey involves not only Irish but also several European scientists including prominent UK lichenologist, Annie Lorrain Smith. This is claimed as the most extensive piece of field work at the time. As a result, Knowles is able to create a foundation for her later specialism in lichens.

Knowles publishes more than thirty scientific papers on a wide range of botanical subjects between 1897 and 1933. It is while studying the lichens of Howth that she discovers how lichens by the shore grow in distinct tidal zones that can be distinguished by their colour: black, orange and grey.

Her major work is The Lichens of Ireland which adds over 100 species of lichen to the Irish List and records the distribution of the eight hundred species identified in Ireland. She achieves this task with the collaboration of thirty other natural scientists. It is published in 1929 and includes twenty lichens that had previously not been identified as Irish.

Professor Thomas Johnson retires in 1923, allowing Knowles to take over curatorship, working with Margaret Buchanan. As she becomes older Knowles’ hearing begins to fail such that she has to rely on an ear trumpet. Despite her deafness she still attends meetings. She cares for and adds to the National Museum Herbarium collection although never gets the credit she deserves. In 1933 she plans to retire but pneumonia ends her life before she ends her career. Knowles dies in Dublin on April 27, 1933.

Knowles is honoured with a commemorative plaque by the Irish National Committee for Science and Engineering in October 2014 to mark the 150th anniversary of her birth.

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Birth of Sophie Mary Peirce-Evans, Irish Aviator

lady-heathSophie Mary Peirce-Evans, Lady Heath, Irish aviator, is born on November 10, 1896 in Knockaderry, County Limerick, near the town of Newcastle West. She is one of the best known women in the world for a five-year period from the mid-1920s.

When Peirce-Evans is one year old, her father, John Peirce-Evans, bludgeons her mother, Kate Theresa Dooling, to death with a heavy stick. He is found guilty of murder and declared insane. She is taken to the home of her grandfather in Newcastle West where she is brought up by two maiden aunts, who discourage her passion for sports.

After schooldays in Rochelle School in Cork, Princess Garden Belfast and St. Margaret’s Hall on Mespil Road in Dublin, where she plays hockey and tennis, Peirce-Evans enrolls in the Royal College of Science for Ireland. The college is designed to produce the educated farmers which the country then needs. One of the few women in the college, she duly takes a top-class degree in science, specialising in agriculture. She also plays with the college hockey team and contributes to a student magazine, copies of which are held in the National Library of Ireland.

Before becoming a pilot, Peirce-Evans has already made her mark. She spends two years as a dispatch rider during World War I, based in England and later France. By that time, she has married the first of her three husbands, Major William Elliot Lynn, and, as Sophie Mary Eliott-Lynn, is one of the founders of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association after her move to London in 1922. She is Britain’s first women’s javelin champion and sets a disputed world record for the high jump. Alleging cruelty, her marriage to Elliot Lynn ends in divorce.

In 1925, Elliot-Lynn takes her first flying lessons and two years later becomes the first woman to hold a commercial flying licence in Britain. Along the way, she set records for altitude in a small plane and later a Shorts seaplane and is the first woman to parachute from an aeroplane.

In an era when the world has gone aviation-mad due to the exploits of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, Elliot-Lynn is more than able to hold her own. “Britain’s Lady Lindy,” as she is known in the United States, makes front-page news as the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small open-cockpit aircraft from Cape Town to London. A scale model of the plane is on display at The Little Museum of Dublin. She writes about the experience later in the book Woman and Flying, which she co-authors with Stella Wolfe Murray. After her great flight from the Cape, she takes a mechanic’s qualification in the United States, the first woman to do so.

On October 11, 1927, Peirce-Evans marries Sir James Heath at Christ Church in Mayfair, London, and assumes the title Lady Heath. In July 1928, she spends a few weeks volunteering as a co-pilot with a civil airline, KLM. She is hoping to be appointed to the newly created Batavia route, which would make her the first female pilot with a commercial airline. The world is not ready for female pilots and her hope is not fulfilled.

In 1929, just when her fame is at its height, with her life a constant whirl of lectures, races and long-distance flights, Lady Heath is badly injured in a crash just before the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. Before the accident Lady Heath applies for American citizenship, intending to remain in the United States where she has made a good living on the lecture circuit and as an agent for Cirrus engines. She is never the same after her accident.

Lady Heath divorces Sir James Heath in Reno, Nevada in January 1930. On 12 November 12, 1931 in Lexington, Kentucky, she marries G.A.R Williams, a horseman and pilot of Caribbean origin. They return to Ireland and she becomes involved in private aviation, briefly running her own company at Kildonan, near Dublin in the mid-1930s, and helping produce the generation of pilots that would help establish the national airline Aer Lingus.

Lady Heath dies in St Leonard’s Hospital, Shoreditch, London on May 9, 1939, following a fall inside a double-decker tram. Although alcoholism had been a problem in previous years, a pathologist finds no evidence of alcohol but detailed evidence of an old blood clot which might have caused the fall. On May 15, 1939, according to newspaper reports, her ashes are scattered over Surrey from an aircraft flown by her estranged husband although legend has it that her ashes are returned to Ireland where they are scattered over her native Newcastle West.