Including Female Botanists

From the early 1840s Barber corresponded with Irish botanist William Henry Harvey (1811-1866), whose Genera of South African Plants (1838) had attracted her attention. He said he had written the book for his “lady-friends” whom he hoped he would encourage to indiscriminately collect “every plant of every neighbourhood” (Harvey 1868: 9, 11). Barber did not want to be seen as a female amateur collector and made sure he’d take her seriously and did correspond with him for a year not revealing that she was a woman. Harvey addressed her as M. Bowker Esq. (Cohen 2000: 189) and Barber made sure he had to rely on her even after knowing she was a woman. Over the years she sent him more than 1,000 specimens.

Her material was transformed by Harvey, his employees and volunteers (see e.g. Fischer 1869:215) to herbarium sheets. Harvey cut passages from her letters out and glued them on the herbarium sheets. What seems a privilege can also have been discrimination due to her sex, as he most likely stored his male correspondents’ letters that were later lost.


Herbarium sheet of Brachystelma filiformis with Barber’s letter passage & Harvey’s lithograph (photographed by T.H., March 2013)

The material that remained in Dublin formed one per cent of the at least 100,000 specimens that Harvey added from 1844 to 1866 to Thomas Coulter’s collection that initiated the herbarium in 1840. Considering the Cape specimens, Barber and Bowker specimens make up approximately forty per cent. This shows how important Barber’s work was for Harvey’s career.

TCD contributed to the African Plant Initiative and scanned Barber’s type specimens as did several other institutions, too. If these specimens were open access, we could not only learn about South African plants, but also about Barber – and female botanists in general – who in the course of the privatisation of knowledge through JSTOR is hardly more visible than before.

At a time when women are absent in history of science and natural history museums and society pictures a man when hearing or reading the word scientist, it is important to see that there have always been female scientists, such as Barber. Nobel laureate Tim Hunt who at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul on 9 June 2015 advocated for sex-segregated labs as “the trouble with girls” is “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you citizen them, they cry!” and to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said: “It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them. If they break into tears they you hold back form getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything (that) gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”On the one hand, this shows how far away science is from gender equality and on the other, how scientists and a large majority of society still believe science is objective devoid of emotion and separate from culture. Female scientists such as Barber require much more visibility in public. JSTOR Global Plants misses a very good opportunity to make female botanists more visible to every person with internet access.


A. Cohen, Mary Elizabeth Barber: South Africa’s first lady natural historian, Archives of Natural History 27:2 (2000):187–208.

L. Fischer (ed.), Memoir of W. H. Harvey, Late Professor of Botany, Trinity College, With Selections from His Journal and Correspondence . Dublin/London 1869.

W. H. Harvey, The Genera of South African Plants According to the Natural System , 2nd edition by J. D. HOOKER (ed.), Cape Town 1868.