The Isabel Cookson Award

Isabl Cookson

DR. ISABEL COOKSON is remembered as one of the most eminent palaeontologists of the past century (1893-1973). This award and fund was established in 1976 by a bequest from Isabel Cookson. The fund supports the Isabel C. Cookson Paleobotanical Award, which is given to the student who delivers the best contributed paper in paleobotany or palynology at the annual meeting.

Dr Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973) ~ micropalaeontologist, palynologist and palaeobotanist of world acclaim:

First Director and honoured in the Isabel C. Cookson Laboratory, centre for palaeobotanical and plant morphology research at the School of Botany, University of Melbourne, founded 1949.

Where women palaeontologists make their mark they seem to tackle a whole group devoting a whole life of zeal and energy to the task to make them their own as Isabel Cookson did with plant fossils from the terrestrial and marine realms. She fostered the field of palynology in Australia.

One of the most eminent palaeontologists of this century was Australian-born Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973). The "indefatigable Cookie" was born on Christmas day in Melbourne, and was educated at the Methodist Ladies College, Hawthorn. She graduated from Melbourne University in 1916 and became the pioneer and "doyen" of palaeobotany and palynology in Australia. She died on 1 July 1973 in her home town as a Special volume of Geological Society of Australia was in press from a celebratory meeting on Mesozoic and Cenozoic palynology at ANZAAS held in May 1971 at Brisbane.

She was one of the first professional women scientists in Australia being employed by the National Museum of Victoria working as a research student for Frederick Chapman (Carey 2001). At this time she was also noted as a botanist and botanical illustrator, contributing to A.J. Ewart and O.B.Davies' (1917) The Flora of the Northern Territory (see H.Hewson's Australia - 300 Years of Botanical Illustration, 1999). Cookson began her M.Sc. under Prof. A.J. Ewart at Melbourne but after some difficulties and losing her job as Demonstrator she set off to Britain in 1925. She consulted first with Prof. A.C. Seward at Cambridge eventually finding her mentor in Prof. W.H. Lang at the University of Manchester and publishing with him on mid-Palaeozoic plants from Victoria from 1927 to 1935. He (with Croft in 1942) later honoured her by naming the genus Cooksonia for Early Devonian plants from Welsh Borders. Her work on the early terrestrial fossil plants of Victoria and field work showing associated graptolites and plants led to her research thesis and to a D.Sc. in 1932 - only the fourth woman to do so - which revolutionized thinking on the evolution of Australian land floras. Some of her palaeobotanical material is in the Museum of Victoria (Carey 2001).

Her published record spans 1921-1970 - some 86 papers with 19 co-authors - "a splendid example of active co-operation" (Baker 1973), but also of determination as much of her work was done on soft money or self-funded. Interestingly of those co-workers, five were women and several her students, also a proud record in the history of palaeontology in Australia. Through her stimulating research, lecturing and demonstrating at Melbourne University from 1930 onwards, she encouraged many including Lucy M. Cranwell, Kathleen McWhae (nee Pike), Lorna Medwell, Suzanne L. Duigan, Basil Balme, Jack Douglas and Mary Dettmann. Although Cookson was appointed Leader of the Pollen Research Unit, by 1952 she could only achieve Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer status in the Botany Department (a common occurrence for women scientists, even today - Kelly 1993, Turner 1998). After official retirement in 1959 she maintained her research especially her overseas trips, as before, mainly by self-funding through canny use of the stock market (Dettmann 1988).

Cookson had many overseas connections and colleagues. Her honours and awards have been listed by her biographers (Baker 1973a, b; Dettmann 1988, 1993). During the 40s and early 50s she mainly worked on pollen contributing a chapter on Proteaceae to Gunnar Erdtman's 1953 'Textbook of Pollen Analysis'. Her work with Professor Alfred Eisenack (1891-1982) (namer of 'Chitinozoa') is lauded and a commemorative display exhibits their co-operation at the University of Tübingen [LINK]. Her collaboration with him flourished after she quarreled irrevocably with Georges Deflandre of France (Sarjeant 1999a, b). They published papers together on Mesozoic and Tertiary marine palynofloras of Australia and PNG, the last posthumously by Eisenack's student Gocht. She enjoyed working in Stockholm with Erdtman (then Head of the Pollen lab at the Swedish Museum of Natural History) and in Oslo with Professor Hoeg and her strong collaborator in later life, Dr Svein Manum (LINK whose picture of Cookie is here - Cookson.jpg).

Notable aspects of her work
Her work provides the foundation for many others. Helene Martin (1978) in her major review of the Australian flora cited 16 papers by Cookson, a further 5 by her students; 35 of the 50 taxa discussed were identified by Cookson and her students. There are 76 mentions of Cookson and students throughout the systematic text. Her honours and awards have been listed by her biographers (Baker 1973a, b; Dettmann 1988, 1993).

Ida Brown in her 1946 presidential address to the Linnean Society of NSW made particular note of Cookson's work on descriptions of the astonishing Baragwanathia flora from Silurian of Victoria, then the oldest and first Silurian land flora worldwide. Her botanical range encompassed ascomycete fungi, crown rot in walnut trees, Acacia, fossil and extant Nothofagus, Podocarpaceae, Araucariaceae, Oleaceae, Proteaceae (especially Banksieae), and plant microfossils of all ages. During the 1940s she began concentrating on microscopic fossil plant remains and the fruit of this labour was the establishment in 1949, with the financial backing from CSIR and the Victorian State Electricity Commission, of the Brown Coal Pollen Research Unit at the University of Melbourne. This she headed with Pike, Duigan and later Dettmann as assistants. Her legacy was the establishment of the usefulness of plant microfossils for biostratigraphy and correlation for the keen exploration of Australia for oil following on from WWII but also the on-going specialist research available at the University of Melbourne's Pollen research unit. Her heritage will not be invisible as that of so many other Australian women of her time (Moyal 1993) and, unlike the sense of Dean Falk (2000) discoursing on the lack of obituaries for women scientists, she will perhaps be immortal.

Glover, J.E & Playford, G. eds 1973. Mesozoic and Caenozoic Palynology. (see below).

biographical source at University of Melbourne Bright Sparks.
'Cookson, Isabel Clifton (1893 - 1973), Biographical Entry' in Bright Sparcs, Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, 2001 [LINK]

Publication List
See Baker 1973a pp vii-x for chronological list

Scope of work
Australia (all states), Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Arctic Canada, Chile, UK (Cambridge Greensand), Kerguelen Is., often economic deposits. Field work in Walhalla and district, Victoria

Biographical details
Baker, G. 1973a. Dr Isabel Clifton Cookson. Geological Society of Australia, Special Publication No. 4, Preface, iii-x (with photo and bibliography).
Baker, G. 1973b. In Memoriam Dr Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973). Reviews of Palynology and Palaeobotany 16, no. 3, 133-135.
Anon. 1973. University of Melbourne Gazette May.
Brown, I. A. 1946. An outline of the history of palaeontology in Australia. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales LXXI, v-xviii.
Carey, Jane in Rasmussen, Carolyn with 46 specialists 2001. A Museum for the People. a history of Museum Victoria and its predecessors 1854-2000. Scribe Publications, Melbourne in assoc Museum Victoria, 423pp. [NB wrong spelling use - Isobel]
Dettmann, M, 1988. Isabel Cookson. pp. 182-183 in Radi, H. ed. 200 Australian Women, a redress anthology. Women's Redress Press Inc., Boradway, NSW.
Dettmann, M, 1993. Cookson. pp. 491-492. In Ritchie, J. ed. Australian Dictionary of Biography. 13, 1940-1980.
Falk, D. 2000. Careers in science offer women an unusual bonus: Immortality. Nature 407, 19 Oct. p. 833.
Glover, J.E. & Playford G. eds 1973. Mesozoic and Cainozoic Palynology Essays in Honour of Isabel Cookson. Geological Society of Australia, Spec. Publ. 4.
Kelly, Farley, ed. 1993. On the Edge of Discovery. Australian women in science. The Text Publishing Company: University of Melbourne.
Martin, H.A. 1978. Evolution of the Australian flora and vegetation through the Tertiary: evidence from pollen. Alcheringa 2, 181-202.
Moyal, Ann. Invisible Heritage. Australasian Science (magazine), USQ, Toowoomba, Summer Edition (1993), pp. 2-3.
Sarjeant, WAS 1999a. Deflandre, George. pp. 356-3. In Singer, R. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Paleontology. Vol. 1, A-L. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. Chicago.
Sarjeant, WAS 1999b. Eisenack, Alfred. pp. 401-402. In Singer, R. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Paleontology. Vol. 1, A-L. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. Chicago.
Turner, S. 1998. Women in Paleontology in Australia. pp. 848-852. In Good, G.A. (ed.) Sciences of the Earth. An Encyclopedia of Events, People, and Phenomena. Garland Press, USA.

Sue Turner & Mary Dettmann