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Pioneering pollen

Dr Isabel Clifton Cookson was one of Australia’s first professional female scientists. Her prolific career spanned 58 years, paving the way for other women in the field of natural sciences. Cookson (or ‘Cookie’ to her friends) faced many adversities during her career, overcoming a range of personal and professional challenges. Ultimately, nothing could dampen her passion for science – and the results were monumental.

By the time she was 22, in 1916, she had graduated from The University of Melbourne with first-class honours in biology and zoology, and was subsequently elected to the Royal Society of Victoria as an associate member. Cookson began working as a research student at the National Museum of Victoria under the guidance of palaeontologist Frederick Chapman. Until then, Cookson had mostly focused on modern plants, but her work with Chapman sparked her interest in fossil plants.

Cookson’s first working trip came in 1925, after she had investigated a collection of fossil plants in the museum’s collection. The young scientist described two different specimens; however, the specimens’ genus was typically found only in the Northern Hemisphere. To further research the museum’s collections, Cookson made the long voyage by sea to the United Kingdom, where she met with Professor William Lang at The University of Manchester. 

Lang encouraged Cookson to return to the United Kingdom with even more fossil plant material, and even went so far as to arrange a position for her in Manchester. In 1926, Cookson returned with some of the museum’s collection, alongside some fossil material she had collected herself from the Yarra Valley in Victoria. One of these fossils found by Cookson was a 400-million-year-old vascular plant fossil, later called Baragwanathia, which would be known as the then-oldest in the world. Over the next eight years, Cookson and Lang would collaborate on a range of scientific publications, which pioneered the understanding of how early plants evolved.

Dr Isabel Clifton Cookson. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

Despite her world-renowned achievements, Cookson couldn’t secure a full-time job until 1929. She was appointed as a lecturer for The University of Melbourne’s biology department, and thus became one of the first female professional scientists in Australia. Regardless of this prestigious role, women were still paid only half the salary of men. Cookson continued to work in this position for more than 17 years, publishing scientific papers on the evolution of prehistoric and primitive plant life.

In the 1940s, Cookson began to research and study plant and fungi fossils from coal mines in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. Cookson discovered traces of pollen in the fossils, and eventually found that these traces could help to not only define areas for oil exploration, but to differentiate between varying geological periods. From this work, Cookson became the first palynologist in Australia, and led the Pollen Research Unit that was established in 1949 at The University of Melbourne. Cookson was promoted to research fellow by 1952.

Today, Cookson’s legacy lives on, inspiring the next generation of women in science. Before her death in 1973, she donated her own collection to Museums Victoria, where it now proudly sits on display.

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