A Great Collector – Mary Harriet Bate (1855-1951)
When Mary Harriet Bate began collecting in 1881 she made quite a salubrious start. That very same year, Victoria’s first Government Botanist, Ferdinand Mueller, not only described a new species based on her specimens, but also named it after her. When informing her of the newly described species, Myoporum bateae F.Muell., he wrote: ‘I hope this acknowledgement will encourage you to continue your searches as doubtless a whole host of rare plants and some new ones remain there yet to be discovered’.
And it was worth encouraging her to continue collecting: among the 360 specimens at the National Herbarium of Victoria collected by Mary is material of six previously undescribed species, including that of the moss Bryum bateae Müll.Hall., which was also named for her.
Mary Bate was one of 225 women and girls identified in Mueller’s network, though not all of them were as diligent apprentices as her. She collected around Tilba Tilba and Mount Gulaga (then known as Mount Dromedary) on the south coast of New South Wales over a period of about six years, gathering mosses, fungi and algae in addition to vascular plants. Mueller trusted her abilities, and often made specific requests for plants that he wished to acquire more of. Mueller wrote: ‘The botanical collections of the lady who discovered this Myoporum contain furthermore several plants especially worthy of record as not having been found formerly so far south’.
Although Mueller’s engagement of women as collectors was fundamentally driven by opportunism rather than egalitarian values, he both respected and helped develop their capabilities. Accordingly, Mueller’s encouragement of Mary extended throughout their acquaintance. In 1884, he wrote to her saying ‘You are one of the very few Ladies in all Australia, who have any taste for botanic science, in contrast to what is observed in all Europe and North America’. Her enduring efforts produced a rich botanical legacy, and have provided a permanent and verifiable record of the flora of Gulaga and Tilba Tilba.
Mary appears to have stopped collecting in 1886, which was – probably not coincidentally – the year in which she married. It is clear that the demands of married life and child-rearing usually restricted the ability of women to spend time collecting: only nine of the single women in Mueller’s network of collectors who later married continued collecting after their marriage.
Mary’s specimens continue to be consulted for a wide range of research purposes, including a comparison of past and present plant distributions conducted by the Gulaga National Park Board about 10 years ago. As well as being of historic interest, this type of comparison can help inform conservation priorities and management practices within the park, thereby helping to conserve the native bush that Mary so evidently loved.