Isabel Clifton Cookson was one of Australia’s first professional women scientists, but unlike Adele V. Vicent, who studied the importance Silurian-Devonian floras in Victoria, her scientific work is well recognized. She was one of the most prominent palynologist of the twenty century. She described a total of 110 genera, 557 species and 32 sub especific taxa of palynomorphs and plants, and published 93 scientific papers (some of them in collaboration with other prominent scientists).
She was born on December 25, 1893 in Melbourne, Australia. After graduating in Zoology and Botany at the University of Melbourne in 1916, she worked for a brief time at the National Museum of Victoria and became interested in fossil plants.
Between 1916 and 1917 she received the Government Research Scholarship, for work on the flora of the Northern Territory of Australia and was awarded with the McBain Research Scholarship in biology. She also collaborated with some illustrations to the book The Flora of the Northern Territory by Alfred J. Ewart and O. B. Davies.
In 1925, she went to England to study with Professor Le Rayner and with Professor Sir A. C. Seward, an authority on fossil plants. She returned a year later as a mycologist in cotton research in the University of Manchester, where she met Professor W. H. Lang. She started an important and productive academic relationship with Lang, who named the genus Cooksonia in her honour.
In 1932, she returned to Melbourne and became mentor of many female researchers like Lorna Medwell and Mary E. Dettmann.
During the 1940s , she began to conduct detailed palaeobotanical studies, with emphasis on pollen analysis and demonstrated the importance of plant microfossils in biostratigraphy and in oil exploration.
In the early 1950s, she was a pioneer in the study of marine palynomorphs: dinoflagellate cysts, acritarchs and chitinozoans from Australian Tertiary and Mesozoic sediments. She also worked with George Deflandre and Alfred Eisenack.
Although her important work, she only reached the senior lecturer status in the department of botany and officially retired in 1959.
After her retirement, she continued doing active research work mainly by self-funding thanks to her skills as an investor on the stock exchange.
Isabel Clifton Cookson died on 1 July 1973 at her Hawthorn home. In her honor, the Botanical Society of America gives the Isabel Cookson Award since 1976, to the best paper on palaeobotany presented at their annual meeting.
Riding, James B.; Dettmann, Mary E.. 2013 The first Australian palynologist: Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) and her scientific work. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology. 1-33. 10.1080/03115518.2013.828252
Mary E. Dettmann, ‘Cookson, Isabel Clifton (1893–1973)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
Nice to find this post! Despite having studied botany at Melb Uni, the life work of many prominent women researchers was not that evident in 80s (I recall a all male teaching staff). After seeing the fossils in Yea it’s great to be discovering more about Cookson and her under-recognised colleagues (albeit many years later.)
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