Dr Penny Olsen ‘Louisa Atkinson: A voice from the country.’

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Thursday, 2 March 2017 - 12:30pm to 1:30pm

Louisa Atkinson (1834–1872) was writer and naturalist who lived near Berrima and collected as far afield as the Canberra region. A frail but independent young woman, at 19 she became Australia's first woman natural history journalist and, not long after, the first Australian-born woman novelist. She began illustrations for a book on Australian natural history. The initial plates were sent to Germany for publication. However, war intervened and the plates were lost.

Building on her childhood passion for nature, Louisa developed the discriminating observational skills that allowed her to recognise as yet undescribed plants. A small, dark-eyed, dark-haired figure, she often headed off on her pony, collecting wallet slung over her shoulder and skirts modified into a more practical trouser-like arrangement. She pressed the day’s take in the evenings, or planted it in the garden the following morning.

Louisa made significant contributions to major scientific undertakings by Ferdinand von Mueller and George Bentham (Flora Australiensis). Several plants are named in her honour, including: Louisa’s Mistletoe Atkinsonialigustrina, now listed as rare and threatened; Erechtitesatkinsoniae (now known as Seneciobipinnatisectus), an erect herb that Louisa found in the Blue Mountains; and Epacris calvertiana, a shrub discovered with her husband.

Hon. Prof. Penny Olsen is research scientist in the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University. She is the author of several books on early Australian natural history and its practitioners.