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The Devoted Botanist – Helen Isobel Aston

From her first role as a temporary Technical Assistant through to numerous published works and impressive award honours, Helen Isobel Aston has long been an extraordinary contributor to both the Australian and international natural history communities.

Helen Aston was hired by the National Herbarium of Victoria in 1957, having recently completed a Bachelor of Science with majors in Botany and Zoology at the University of Melbourne. At a time when employment of women botanists at scientific institutions was on the rise, Helen was initially employed temporarily and assigned to routine curatorial and identification work. It didn’t take long for colleagues to notice her talents; later that same year she became the first woman to hold a permanent position as a botanist at the Herbarium.

During her 34 years on staff and 16 years as an Honorary Associate, Helen worked across several roles, namely as Senior Botanist, then the Australian Botanical Liaison Officer seconded to the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and lastly in her final position as Curator of Herbarium Collections, from which she retired in 1991.

Helen's varied and successful career is a reflection of her deep passion for the natural world, an interest that was sparked in childhood while living on a farm near the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales. Initially inspired by the surrounding birdlife, she began research in plant taxonomy in 1963, studying the evolutionary relationships among freshwater aquatic flowering plants, in particular those in northern and eastern Australia. Helen later documented these findings in the first comprehensive book on the subject, ten years in the making, entitled Aquatic Plants of Australia.

Helen penned a host of other publications, including some 50-odd botanical papers and articles, in addition to serving as Editor of Muelleria. As one of Australia’s leading experts on freshwater vascular plants, she provided input into a number of other publications, including Floras of Australia, Central Australia, the Kimberly region and Victoria; a guide to the freshwater plants of Papua New Guinea; and a bird atlas of the Melbourne region.

Well-respected, passionate and prolific in her research and involvement in the natural history community, Helen’s honours include the Australian Natural History Medallion award and the naming of the genus Astonia, an aquatic plant found in Queensland. Helen’s involvement in the Herbarium has spanned all aspects of its function, including both research and management of the collection, where the majority of her specimens are now held.

Helen celebrated her 85th birthday this week.

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