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The woman who defined Australian moss research

Most of what we know about Australian mosses is thanks to Ilma Stone’s amazing research. Her work opened the scientific world’s eyes to the incredible diversity of moss in Australia

Ilma Stone was born as Ilma Balfe in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick in 1913. Known for being a clever child, Stone attended Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School on a scholarship, and excelled in a range of subjects before ultimately becoming dux of the school at just 16. Achieving excellent marks in both English and botany, Stone’s love of flora was inspired by one of her teachers. 

After high school, Stone enrolled at The University of Melbourne to pursue studies in botany. It was the early 1930s, and women were scarce in tertiary education, a field dominated by men. At the time, Stone was only one of 18 women on campus. Despite this, Stone graduated with a Master of Science by the time she was 20, with her chosen specialty in sclerotium-forming fungi that causes disease in ornamental plants. Her dissertation was published in 1935. After completing her degree, Stone’s grandfather offered the recent graduate financial assistance to allow her to further her studies at Cambridge University in England, but Stone declined.

Instead, Stone spent the next 20 years away from research, and chose to focus on her family. She married civil engineer Alan Stone in 1936, and together they raised three children. As was common at the time, Stone put her career on hold to take care of domestic duties, devoting herself to her husband, her children, and her home. But in 1957, Stone heard on the radio that The University of Melbourne was seeking laboratory demonstrators for the School of Chemistry. Inspired by the announcement, Stone called up the School of Botany to see if they also needed assistance – and they did! At the age of 44, Stone returned to her academic career on a part-time basis as both a demonstrator and researcher.

In 1963, Stone was awarded a PhD for her thesis, ‘A morphogenetic study of stages in the life cycle of some Victorian cryptograms’, which was largely focused on fern gametophytes. After this, Stone became a full-time demonstrator in botany, with this return to academia seeing her focus primarily on ferns and the early development stages of life history.

From 1969 onwards, Stone’s work was largely focused on mosses, which she believed were a neglected field in Australia that needed critical revision. Stone’s book, The Mosses of Southern Australia, was released in 1976 in collaboration with Dr George Scott. To this day, The Mosses of Southern Australia is still the only book that specialises in Australian moss varieties.

After a prosperous career in academia, Stone retired in 1978. Following her retirement, Stone was made Senior Associate and then Associate Professor of the Department of Botany at the University of Melbourne. In 1982, Stone was also made an honorary member of the British Bryological Society. Stone passed away in 2001 at 87, but her legacy lives on. During her career, Stone published 70 papers (11 of which were written in her 80s). Today, Stone’s collection (approximately 15,000 specimens) is on display at the National Herbarium of Victoria.

Image courtesy of iStock

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