Knowles, Matilda

Matilda Knowles (1864 – 1933)


Matilda Knowles was born in Cullybackey, County Antrim , where her father was an insurance agent, a land agent for the Casement estates and secretary of the Antrim County Land , Building and Investment Company. He was also an archaeologist and Member of the Royal Irish Academy . He encouraged Matilda to study natural history and to attend meetings and field trips of both the Belfast and the Ballymena Naturalists’ Field Clubs.

Matilda registered as an occasional student in natural sciences at the Royal College of Science in Dublin in 1895, but only attended for a year. Women at that time were unable to take degrees at Trinity College Dublin. In 1902 she was appointed a temporary assistant in the Botanical Section of the Science and Art (later National) Museum. She worked closely with Professor Thomas Johnson on organising the Herbarium and was co-author with him of the Hand List of Irish Flowering Plants and Ferns (1910). When Johnson retired in 1923, Matilda was appointed assistant Keeper of the Botanical Section of the museum. Her meticulous and dedicated curatorship is still reflected in the excellent condition of the national and international accessions made during her period managing the National Herbarium (now located in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin). She published more than thirty scientific papers on a wide range of botanical subjects between 1897 and 1933.

In 1909-10 she participated in the Clare Island Survey as an assistant to Annie Lorraine Smith, the foremost British lichen expert. The Survey was a unique undertaking, involving many Irish, British and continental European scientists and learned institutions. It can claim to be one of the first systematic baseline studies of the natural history of a distinct biogeographic area. Matilda Knowles proved to be a very diligent collector of lichens (some new to Ireland ) on the island and committed herself almost completely to their study from then on.

Her first substantial paper on lichens, The Maritime and Marine Lichens of Howth, was published by the Royal Dublin Society in 1913. This pioneering ecological study became a classic of Irish botanical literature. At the request of R L Praeger and the Royal Irish Academy she then spent some years preparing a systematic monograph on Irish lichens, published in 1929 as The Lichens of Ireland. With the help of many amateur and professional naturalists, this records the distribution of some 800 species in Ireland and is her most notable intellectual legacy. About 20 of the species were new to Ireland , with several being first recorded by her. The book has been described as ‘one of the finest pieces of work ever carried out in any section of the Irish flora’.

Two lichen species, Lecidia matildae and Verrucaria knowlesiae, are named after Matilda Knowles. A commemorative plaque is planned for erection in Dublin by WITS (Women in Technology & Science).

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