Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 23, 2020

Author Event: Danielle Clode in conversation about The Wasp and the Orchid, at Glen Eira Library

As you will know if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I am interested in Australia’s early botanists, many of whom were women… and so I was delighted when Glen Eira Library offered a session featuring zoologist Danielle Clode and her biography of Edith Coleman, The Wasp and the Orchid.

This is the blurb:

‘Have you met Mrs Edith Coleman? If not you must – I am sure you will like her – she’s just A1 and a splendid naturalist.’

In 1922, a 48-year-old housewife from Blackburn delivered her first paper, on native Australian orchids, to the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria. Over the next thirty years, Edith Coleman would write over 300 articles on Australian nature for newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. She would solve the mystery of orchid pollination that had bewildered even Darwin, earn the acclaim of international scientists and, in 1949, become the first woman to be awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion. She was ‘Australia’s greatest orchid expert’, ‘foremost of our women naturalists’, a woman who ‘needed no introduction’.

And yet, today, Edith Coleman has faded into obscurity. How did this remarkable woman, with no training or connections, achieve so much so late in life? And why, over the intervening years, have her achievements and her writing been forgotten?

Zoologist and award-winning writer Danielle Clode sets out to uncover Edith’s story, from her childhood in England to her unlikely success, sharing along the way Edith’s lyrical and incisive writing and her uncompromising passion for Australian nature and landscape

Danielle’s books are about natural history and science and she’s written some for children as well.  She has had 10 books published (see them here) and has an 11th coming out soon.  It’s called In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World, and it’s about the first woman to circumnavigate the world, who did a lot of botany on the voyage.  (I can’t wait to see that one!)  Danielle started out as a scientist but then she had a job at Museum Victoria which turned out to be working as a ‘research essayist’, a sensational job which was the catalyst for her career in science writing.

The Wasp and the Orchid comes from that time at the museum, and she did a reading which brought back memories of the good old days when Museum Victoria was at its old site in Swanston St and was what I call a real museum, you know, one where you can actually learn about taxonomies and so on.

Anyway…

It was while she was doing that job that Danielle encountered Edith Coleman, mentioned as an afterthought as the discover of pseudo-copulation, which is a technique by which a plant tricks an insect into pollinating it.  Edith was an authority on orchids but also echidnas, spiders and birds, and she wrote the first systematic booklet about wattles in Australia.  Overlooked and underappreciated and omitted from books about natural history, Edith fascinated Danielle and that interest became this book.

It’s tempting, Danielle said, to assume that she was overlooked because she was a woman, but it was also because she was an amateur; because she wrote for newspapers; because she was a naturalist not a scientist; and because she was Australian but not Australian enough.  But fortunately for us, Danielle found out about a grant from the orchid society, to provide the funding to write the book.  Interest in the topic grew: she had students who joined her, they did a stint on Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor about it, and then there was the hunt for a publisher, but scholarly publishers weren’t interested.  But, she said, writers should never give up because quite by chance she had a conversation about it on Facebook and thus found a publisher who was very keen to publish it!


Edith Coleman was born in 1874 in Old Woking in the English countryside near Guildford.  She grew up with the usual classical influences but also not far from Gilbert White, the famous naturalist who influenced her interest in the natural world. In 1887 her family emigrated to Australia, possibly to join her brother who had previously migrated here due to ill health, and the catalyst was probably when her sister died and perhaps the family hoped for better health in the Australian climate.  As a teenager Edith went to school here and then became a pupil teacher, which was then the pathway to becoming a teacher.  She later went to Teachers’ College after Frank Tate’s reforms to the Victorian education system and teacher training.  Frank Tate also loved nature study and literature and he made sure that they were an important part of the school curriculum.

Edith met her future husband in a bike shop where he was a salesman.  He was quite an interesting bloke too, a pioneering motor enthusiast and successful as an entrepreneur in motoring sales.  They had two children and moved from the inner suburbs out to Blackburn, known as the garden suburb on what were then the outskirts of Melbourne, where Edith was surrounded by paddocks and bushland. (No, it’s not like that now, though it is a green and leafy suburb, with a magnificent lake).

Edith became notable quite suddenly at 48 when she presented her paper on orchids to the Victorian Field Naturalists Association. It caused a bit of a sensation and it became her first foray into print when it was published in their journal, where her writing comes across as authoritative even though it was her debut.  But in 1927, what put her on the map was her discovery of pseudo-copulation.  This discovery derived from observations when her daughter Dorothy had picked some orchids at their holiday house at Healesville.  She noticed that there was a wasp hanging around this orchid, and this was was odd because orchids don’t produce nectar.  She found that the wasps would still hunt out the orchids even if she hid them, and she also noticed that all the wasps were male.  (This is apparently easy to spot if you get close enough to a wasp which is something I have never been tempted to do).  For Edith, the question was, what was in it for the wasp when it mated with an orchid?  The orchid gets pollinated so that’s a benefit to the plant but what about the wasp?  The answer seems to be that attracted by the pheromones, they were (a-hem) enjoying themselves… vigorously… and LOL we were treated to a video of orchid ‘porn’ to prove it!

The orchids achieve this with deception and mimicry, and Australia is apparently a hotbed of these tactics in the animal and plant world.  It’s probably because the continent was so isolated for millennia.  Edith was not the only one working on this theory of pseudo-copulation but as an Australian she had an advantage: our longer period of warm weather offered more time and opportunity than others had when they were working on the same thing in Europe.

Edith was also an indefatigable promoter of her work: she was great at networking; she wrote to people every day; she talked to collectors; and she sent out papers here and overseas.  (Including sending her work off to a Professor Poulton at Oxford.  He was very influential in the world of biology, and he made her name known in the UK when he — albeit in a somewhat patronising way when he didn’t wait for her permission to do it — republished her paper.  He did at least he did acknowledge her work along with his own. She very quickly became known as Australia’s leading naturalist and was compared to Darwin.

In 1949 she was awarded the Australian Natural History medal, which cited not just her research but also her brilliance in communicating it with allusions to classical and Australian literature.  She published in The Age (The Argus) and women’s magazines because she liked to share her discoveries with everyday people.  She was prolific too: she published over 300 articles after the age of 50… and a lot of this output is unique. Yet she did all of this while living with a severe form of Meniere’s Disease, which incapacitated her for days, enduring chronic dizziness and nausea.   Indeed, her very last paper, published posthumously, was written when she was in palliative care, dying from bowel cancer but still observing nature in the garden.


Danielle is a great communicator and held my interest throughout the hour: she told droll anecdotes, for example, about Edith’s husband adjourning to sleep in the sleepout when Edith was researching the mating habits of huntsman spiders inside their house.  (Huntsman spiders are apparently ‘stoic’ in their efforts to mate!)  I like the sound of the structure of The Wasp and the Orchid too, clearly separating fictional elements from the facts. Edith was not a person who wrote much about herself, and whereas nature writing today tends to be lyrical and person-orientated, Edith wrote as an observer and a philosopher, leaving herself out of the picture. So Danielle has used her imagination to bring her to life.  Each chapter begins with a fictional reconstruction of events derived from Danielle’s research, followed by the non-fiction section which also includes some of Edith’s own writing.

I definitely want to read this book. (It was shortlisted for the National Biography Award).  I don’t know how I missed seeing it at the time, but Theresa Smith reviewed it here.

Thanks to Reilly from Glen Eira Library for organising this session.

These are some of the books about naturalists and botanists that I recommend if you’re interested in this topic too:

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. I enjoy books about women botanists and other nature exploration. I love ornithology tales too but few woman were bird watchers to the extreme. Love it when I hear of one.

    Like

    • Offhand, I don’t know of any either. One of the books I’ve recommended made the point that many women were botanical collectors because it was something they could easily do. Often they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, but surrounded by unique flora and once people like Ferdinand Von Mueller (Victoria’s director of the botanic gardens) discovered them, it became an interest for them to pursue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. On my list! You’ve done it again, Lisa ;-)

    Like

  3. Fascinating Lisa!

    Like

    • These events at Glen Eira are open to anyone, I think… but they can be tricky to know about. I think you can follow their Facebook page, but I don’t like Facebook and only use it to keep an eye on the welfare of friends that don’t keep in touch person-to-person.

      Like

  4. It’s a beautifully presented book too, hard cover with photos and other illustrations. Thanks for the link back. I’m looking forward to Danielle’s next book.

    Like

  5. When I think women botanists and naturalists in Australia, my first thoughts go to Louisa Atkinson, about whom I’ve posted, and who is probably included in Penny Olsen’s book.

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    • Yes, you know all this fuss about statues? I’d like to see some statues of amazing women like her!

      Like


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