Winifred Betts – botany pioneer

Monday, September 8th, 2014 | Anna Blackman | 2 Comments

Post prepared by Dr Ali Clarke, Library Assistant (Reference)

This year the University of Otago Department of Botany is celebrating its 90th anniversary. In honour of the occasion, I’ve been looking back at the beginnings of botany, as revealed in the university’s archives here at the Hocken. Although the “department” is generally dated from 1924, when John Holloway began as lecturer, botany was taught as early as the 1870s. In the university’s early decades, when student numbers were small, there were very few teaching staff and they had a wide brief. The first professor of “natural science” – F.W. Hutton – taught geology as well as biology. The 1877 University Calendar offered a general introductory course called “Principles of Biology,” as well as papers in zoology and botany. This pattern was to continue for several decades. The 1877 botany course covered “the structure, functions, and distributions of the orders of cryptograms, and the principal orders of phanerogams,” as well as “the use of the microscope.”

Geology and biology were separated into two positions after Hutton left in 1880. Thomas Parker held the chair in biology from 1880 to 1897 and William Benham from 1898 to 1937. Both were brilliant scientists, but their chief research interests were in zoology rather than botany. As the university grew, the workload of teaching all aspects of biology to science, medical, dental and home science students became increasingly burdensome. Professor Benham managed to get an assistant – Winifred Farnie – to help with biology teaching from 1916 to 1918. In 1918 he suggested that it was time for the university to appoint a lecturer in botany, but the Council decided to delay for a year. The 1919 calendar notes that instruction in botany “is not provided at present” – presumably Benham had decided he was over-stretched and could no longer offer the course. He repeated his request for a botany lecturer to the council that year, and this time approval was granted. Benham already had somebody in mind for the post – his former student Winifred Betts.

OU Review 1917

Otago University Graduates of 1917, including Winifred Betts and Winifred Farnie

Rather than simply appointing Betts, the council decided to advertise the post of botany lecturer. Were they, perhaps, reluctant to appoint a woman? As it turned out, they received three applications, all from women, and selected Betts as Otago’s first botany lecturer. For Benham, this was a long overdue development. In 1919, writing in honour of the university’s jubilee, he commented: “It is a curious fact that in each of the four colleges in New Zealand it has been expected that one man shall undertake to teach efficiently those two subjects [zoology and botany], which in England, even in fourth-rate educational institutions, have for many years been entrusted to two distinct individuals.” He was happy to report that Otago had now “set the example to the other University Colleges by appointing a lecturer in botany”.

Winnie Betts was just 25 years old when she commenced her new position at the beginning of 1920. Born in Moteuka, she was educated at Nelson College for Girls, receiving a University National Scholarship in 1911. She then came to Otago, graduating BSc in 1916 and MSc in 1917. She was clearly one of the more capable students of her era, and by 1915 Benham had selected her as a demonstrator in biology. On completing her MSc she received a National Research Scholarship – one was awarded at each university each year. This provided her with an income of £100 a year along with lab expenses so she could carry out independent research. In 1919, at a lecture to an admittedly partisan audience in Nelson, distinguished botanist Leonard Cockayne described Betts as “the most brilliant woman scientist in New Zealand.”


Winifred Betts


In December 1920 Winnie Betts married another brilliant Otago graduate, the mathematician Alexander Aitken. Aitken, whose studies were interrupted by war service (he was badly wounded at the Somme), was by then teaching at Otago Boys’ High School. This was an era when most women left paid employment when they married, so it is intriguing that Winnie Aitken continued working as botany lecturer for some years. She joined a handful of women on Otago’s academic staff. As well as the women of the School of Home Science, there were Isabel Turnbull in Latin, Gladys Cameron in Bacteriology and Public Health and Bertha Clement in English; others came and went during Winnie’s years at Otago.

Winnie Aitken’s career as botany lecturer came to an end in December 1923. Her husband had been awarded a scholarship for postgraduate study and they moved to Edinburgh, where he had a long and distinguished academic career as a mathematician. Alexander died in 1967 and Winnie in 1971; they had two children. Various women have since taught botany at the University of Otago; indeed, it has been one of the more gender-balanced of the academic departments. As the department celebrates its 90th anniversary with Prof Kath Dickinson at its head, it seems an appropriate moment to remember the woman who pioneered it all!

Art in the Service of Science – Dunedin’s John Buchanan

Monday, November 26th, 2012 | Anna Blackman | 1 Comment

John Buchanan, Milford Sound, looking north-west from Freshwater Basin, 1863, watercolour 222 x 509mm. Donated to the Otago Museum by Peter Buchanan in 1898 and transferred to the Hocken Library in 1948. Hocken Pictures 7,445

It is always a surprise when encountering art works known from reproduction to discover how small they really are.  John Buchanan’s Milford Sound from Freshwater Basin 1865, is a modest in size but grand in conception.  It was made to show the wonders that lay over the Southern Alps, recently explored by James Hector of the Otago Geological Survey and went on display at the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865.

Sketches for the watercolour were made in November 1863 when the Survey’s chartered boat, the Matilda Hayes, was guided by Henry Paremata to anchor at Anita Bay at the entrance to Milford Sound.  Hector’s report to John Hyde Harris, the Provincial Superintendant, was serialized for the Otago Daily Times and conveys some of the excitement he felt:

“The scenery is quite equal to the finest that can be enjoyed by the most difficult and toilsome journeys into the Alps of the interior, and the effect being greatly enhanced as well as the access made more easy by the incursion of the sea …into their alpine solitudes.”

Hector’s sophisticated understanding of glaciation is evident:

“The sea in fact now occupies a chasm that was in past ages ploughed by an immense glacier, and it is through the natural progress of events by which the mountain mass has been reduced in altitude that the ice stream has been replaced by the waters of the ocean.  The evidence of this change may be seen at a glance.”

The head of Milford Sound was the ideal place to recuperate from the arduous six month sea journey from Port Chalmers:

“Two hours sail brought us into a fresh water basin, where we anchored, and next day, as I intended to remain here some time, a large tent was put up on shore, and everything in the yacht taken out and overhauled…”

Ever observant of life in the natural realm, Buchanan has depicted the Sound without the Matilda Hayes evident, but with frolicking dolphins and birds in residence.  Hector describes the novelty of the surrounding smorgasbord of stones, speculating optimistically on the possibility that there might be gold in the hills:

“The geological structure of the mountains around Milford Sound is more complicated than in any other part of the West Coast that I have examined.  The prevailing rock is syenitic gneiss, associated with schist, greenstone, porphyry and felspathic schist, succeeded towards the lower part of the Sound by fine grained gneiss of newer age, felstones, quartzites and clay slates.  No metallic ores were observed, but several might be expected to occur among the last mentioned group of strata, if a locality were found to have been traversed by fissures in which vein-stone could form.”

Hector had earlier that year explored an overland route to the West Coast.  He provisioned in January 1863 in Oamaru, laying in three dozen boxes of sardines, vinegar, mustard, curry and sauces as well as 3 bars of soap, five pounds of tobacco and a case of Geneva [genever, a spirit distilled from a mash of grains and flavoured with juniper berries – the original “Dutch courage” drink.]”

On this trip, John Buchanan took his share of the supplies, and camped in the Matukituki Valley for four months to botanise in the beech forest in the lower Matukituki Valley and the open tops of the mountains above the valley.  Useful research for his 1865 New Zealand Exhibition essay “A Sketch of the Botany of Otago” was undertaken, and he prepared a vegetation map of the area.  On 2 March 1863, while climbing the 2339 metre peak Mt Alta, near Wanaka Buchanan discovered a lovely flowering plant at an altitude of 6000 feet (1828.8 metres).

John Buchanan, Southern part of Lake Wanaka, 1863, watercolour 189 x 250mm. Donated to the Otago Museum by Peter Buchanan in 1898 and transferred to the Hocken Library in 1948. Hocken Pictures 7,446

After three glorious summer months spent roaming in the mountains above Lake Wanaka as well as exploring the Matukituki Valley, Lindis Pass and Waitaki Valley, Buchanan packaged up his findings, and sent them off to Joseph Dalton Hooker at Kew.  Buchanan lists this material as “328 species of which 110 are alpines from above an altitude of 3000 feet, the highest  7500 feet”.  Hooker rewarded Buchanan’s diligence by naming the Mt Alta plant Ranunculus buchanani in his honour.

Buchanan also painted a one-third life-sized version of a magnificent flowering specimen of Ranunculus lyalli, the Mount Cook lily.  This plant had been described in its non-flowering state by Hooker, and named for its discoverer, David Lyall (1817-1895), surgeon and naturalist on the HMS Acheron.  Hooker described it in Flora Novae-Zelandiae as “…the monarch of all buttercups…the only known species with peltate leaves, the “water-lily” of the New Zealand shepherds.”

John Buchanan, Ranunculus lyalli, Hook. fil. (Wanaka Lake) 1863, watercolour, pen and ink, 686 x 425mm, exhibited at the New Zealand Exhibition, Dunedin 1865, exhibit 876 (9) with the title Ranunculus lyalli, Hook. fil. new species. One third natural size. Donated to the Hocken Library by Professor Geoff Baylis in 1963. Hocken Pictures 20,327.

Buchanan was one of many plantsmen to supply Kew with material from the colonies, and how this was treated is the subject of a lecture by science historian Jim Endersby from Sussex University, who will give the provocatively titled talk “Imperial Science: the invention of New Zealand’s plants” at the  Hutton Theatre, Otago Museum on Thursday 29th November at 5.30pm.An exhibition of John Buchanan’s work will be on display in the Hocken Library Gallery from 22 November to 9 February 2013.  Linda Tyler will give a floortalk in the exhibition at 10am on Saturday 1 December 2012.

Blog post prepared by Linda Tyler, Director, Centre for Art Research, The University of Auckland, P B 92019

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