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The Essence of Insult – Flora Campbell (1845-1923)

Historically, women in natural history have often been relegated to the rank of amateurs, but many 19th-Century female plant collectors and naturalists such as Flora Campbell were intrepid collectors who wielded great expertise. As we celebrate International Women's Day, read on to find out more about the life and work of the remarkable Flora Campbell.

When Flora Martin (née Campbell), expert in plant pathology, was overlooked for the position of vegetable pathologist in Victoria – a role that she had lobbied the Victorian government to establish, in favour of a man, she took great offence. Her reaction was recorded in her copy of McAlpine’s Systematic Arrangement of Australian Fungi (pictured), which relied heavily on her work, where she underlined a passage acknowledging her work and wrote "the essence of insult"on the title page.

Despite the lack of recognition afforded her, Flora’s contribution to botanical science was indisputably extraordinary. An early member of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, she had a special interest in fungi, lichen and mosses. Although her botanical legacy has mostly been appreciated as that of a collector of fungi, recent research reveals that she was a pioneering scientist who also published, presented, and gave expert advice on mycology.

In 1885, Flora became the first woman to publish an article in the Field Naturalists Club journal and, soon after, was the first woman to write a talk for the Club. In 1888, she was employed by the Department of Agriculture to investigate the hop-spider in Gippsland, making her one of only two professional female botanists in Ferdinand Mueller’s network of collectors. Then, in 1890, she was the only woman to present a paper at the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Melbourne. 

For many female collectors in the 19th century, the scope of their collecting activity was restricted by domestic duties. Flora’s travels were quite intrepid by contrast. As well as collecting extensively around Victoria, she made trips to Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania, and was often away from home, visiting and collecting, for months at a time. Among her collections are the type specimens of 84 species, 78 of which were described by the renowned English mycologists Cooke and Massee, who published the first comprehensive account of Australian fungi. Their appreciation of Flora’s talent and dedication are demonstrated by the naming of the genus Martinella in her honour.

Most of Flora’s fungi collections were retained by mycologists overseas, with only about 180 of her plant and fungi specimens housed at the National Herbarium of Victoria. But those we do have are wonderful to behold: pressed leaves of plants bearing rust fungi and other diseases, and carefully dried mushrooms accompanied by watercolours illustrating features that can be lost upon drying. As well as bearing testament to Flora’s precocious talents and dedication, together with the Herbarium’s collection of 1.5 million pressed and dried plant, algae and fungi specimens, they remain an invaluable resource for research in taxonomy, systematics and conservation.

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