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Women in botany

From 1760 to about 1830, botany was more open to women than any other science. In fact, society considered botany an acceptable womanly pursuit because, unlike zoology, it did not involve the killing and handling of dead animals. Not only was botany a respectable pastime related to natural theology, but it fit within women’s role as educators of children. Female botanists helped shape today’s views of nature and many women’s interest in natural history made them into activists similar to today’s environmentalists.

As long as it remained an informal, private pursuit, botany was open to women. As soon as it became a professionalized, public activity, botany became closed to them and directed towards a male audience. When this happened, many male botanists collected plants with their wives and, like in so many other scientific fields, women became the botany community’s “invisible technicians,” who did scientific work but did not get any credit for it. Sisters Susannah Moodie (1803–1885) and Catherine Parr Traill (1802–1899), who wrote about their lives in the Ontario wilderness, were two well-known female botanists, but the majority of women botanists of that era remained unknown.

Compared to other parts of British North America, British Columbia was colonized quite late. When European immigrants made the trip to BC, they brought their interest in natural history with them.

Some BC clubs of the late 1800s excluded women. According to newspaper accounts, the Vancouver Art Association had failed because it prevented women from joining. In Victoria, the Natural History Society of British Columbia also had a mostly male membership in its early days. In 1900, the club amended their constitution to allow women to become members of the society, but within a separate associate branch. This meant that women paid the same entrance fees and dues but still could not hold office. In 1909, the club eliminated all gender discrimination. When the Vancouver Natural History Society formed in 1918, it did not discriminate among its members based on gender.

Photos in Davidson’s collection show that women played a leading role in the natural history field trips in Scotland, as well as in both the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) and the Vancouver Natural History Society.

Soon after Davidson arrived in British Columbia, Miss Mary Jane Gruchy became his herbarium assistant. A year earlier, the young woman had come to Vancouver with her family from D’Escousse, Cape Breton Island. Gruchy’s duties included stenography and pressing and mounting plants for study.

During the Depression, the herbarium and botanical garden suffered greatly because money was so scarce. UBC laid off many employees, but department head Dr. Andrew H. Hutchinson made Gruchy the sole departmental office secretary as a way of keeping her employed. Her duties at this time also included helping out in the herbarium. Dr. V.C. Brink recalls that Gruchy was not an efficient secretary.

Like Davidson, Gruchy had close ties to the BC Mountaineering Club. She was also a published poet.

Scagel on Davidson
Listen to the audio clip: “Gruchy’s iron hand” (streaming, 225 KB)

Stream the audio clip in an external player: “Gruchy’s iron hand” (MP3, 225 KB)
Read the transcript: “Gruchy’s iron hand

Gruchy, who never married, remained Davidson’s assistant until he retired from the University of British Columbia in 1948. She stayed on in the UBC botany department until her own retirement in 1957. She’d worked for 45 years in a field that had once been largely for men and handled 20,000 of the herbarium’s 50,000 specimens. Unfortunately, Gruchy did not leave behind many records. Had she done so, her perspective would have helped evaluate some of Davidson’s claims.

Davidson’s Botanical Office had a few female correspondents who wrote letters and mailed specimens, according to the report for 1913. Among the more eager were Miss A.S. MacKenzie of Mission City and Mrs. S. Stoker of Duncan.

Another woman, Mrs. Julia Wilmotte Henshaw (née Julia Wilmotte Henderson), contributed greatly to botany in British Columbia. Born in 1869 to an avid naturalist in Durham, England, the young woman studied in France and Germany before arriving in Vancouver around 1890. Henshaw published three books on wildflowers and took credit for scientifically describing the moccasin flower (Cypripedium acaule). Henshaw’s botanical works included:

  • Mountain Wildflowers of Canada: A Simple and Popular Guide to the Names and Descriptions of the Flowers that Bloom Above the Clouds (Toronto: William Briggs, 1906)
  • Mountain Wildflowers of America (1906)
  • Wild Flowers of North American Mountains (New York, 1917)

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Further reading

David Brownstein (2006). Sunday Walks and Seed Traps: The Many Natural Histories of British Columbia Forest Conservation, 1890–1925, unpublished PhD Thesis, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Ann B. Shteir (1997). “Gender and ‘Modern’ Botany in Victorian England” in Osiris, vol 12, pp 29-38.

Ann B. Shteir (1996). Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760 to 1860, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Barbara T. Gates (1998). Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.