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Meet: Penny Olsen, researcher and writer

Photo - courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Penny Olsen spends most of her working life surrounded by the treasures of the National Library of Australia. It was there she came across a note that led to the beautiful ‘Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists’. Robin Powell lured her out of the library for a chat.

Most of your written work has been on birds, what drew you to the ladies and their collections?

I was researching one of my books when I came across an article placed in the newspaper by Ferdinand von Mueller. He was the first Government Botanist of Victoria, and later the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. He advertised for ladies who had followed husbands, brothers or fathers into remote areas of the country and were in want of intellectual stimulation. I thought that was a great subject for a book, and luckily the library thought so too.



Photo - courtesy of the National Library of Australia


Quite a few ladies signed on and collected plants for von Mueller. How important was their contribution to botanical knowledge in the 19th century?

The plants they collected were important, and not infrequently they had a plant named after them. For instance Fanny Anne Charsley had the daisy like wildflower Helipterum charsleyae named after. Louisa Atkinson had about 6 plants named after her. Women weren’t allowed to name and describe plants themselves, they weren’t welcomed to the table of the cutting edge of science. But they were obviously very knowledgeable. Some of them also did very scientific illustration. I think the big role they played though was in popularising botany. Their books were really beautiful; unlike the stuff the men wrote which tended to be very dry, with lots of Latin words and strictly scientific illustration, whereas the books by the women featured beautiful paintings of flowers and other flora.

What kind of relationship did Von Mueller have with the women?

He was always terribly encouraging, and wrote lots of letters, with quite purple prose. It would have been quite exciting, I imagine, if you were a Victorian lady, not used to be taken seriously about anything much, to receive these letters from such a renowned scientist and to be involved in his work. One of the collecting ladies actually became his fiancé: Euphemia Henderson. He loved her name. He had several fiancées actually, though not all were plant collectors. Euphemia was his first love, but he dumped her when he found out she was probably too old to have children (she was five years older than him). She kept several letters from von Mueller in a secret drawer in a desk he gave her after they broke up. She is said to have revealed the location of the letters only on her deathbed.


Photo - courtesy of the National Library of Australia


Did you find yourself particularly drawn into the life or character of any of the women?

I would have liked to have met Lady Margaret Forrest. She sounds like an interesting woman. She went on expeditions, her art was lovely, and once she became the Premier’s wife (her husband Sir John Forrest was the first premier of Western Australia) she embraced that and took up worthy causes in a quiet kind of way. And I think the Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena, who were from Sydney, and Lousia Atkinson, who lived in the Blue Mountains, if they had been born today would be doing something like I am doing now. They all had good heads for science, but didn’t have the opportunities that modern women have, so did what they could, which was zoological and botanical drawing for men.


‘Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists’, by Penny Olsen, published by National Library of Australia, rrp $39.99. Great idea for Christmas!

Text: Robin Powell

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Author: Robin Powell