Matilda Knowles

Matilda Knowles

Matilda Cullen Knowles (1864–1933) was born at Cullybackey, near Ballymena. The family regularly visited archaeological sites together, but even as a young girl Matilda was more interested in botany. She attended natural science classes in the Royal College of Science in Dublin, and in June 1902 went to work in the Botanical Section of the Science and Art Museum in Dublin; she was appointed assistant to the Head of Botany in 1907 and was in charge of the botanical collections from about 1923. Knowles had far-reaching influence in the field of Irish botany as she had a “wide knowledge of all matters relating to Systematic Botany.” Under her curatorship, botanists from all over the world consulted the herbarium, corresponded with her and sent specimens. Her Handlist of Irish flowering plants and ferns had two editions; a third edition, in Irish, appeared after her death.

Knowles studied lichens as assistant to Robert Lloyd Praeger and Annie Lorrain Smith in the RIA’s important Survey of Clare Island after 1908, and concentrated on this group of organisms (there was and is debate as to how to classify them – lichens were formerly regarded as plants, now they are classed as fungi, but they comprise an ecology of organisms including fungi and algae) for the rest of her career. She collected specimens all over Ireland, and verified and arranged thousands of existing records almost single-handedly; her comprehensive paper The lichens of Ireland was published in 1929. It added over 100 species to the Irish flora, dealt with over 800 species and sub-species, and subjected the group to critical ecological and topographical study.

When Dora met her in 1917 she lived at Nassau Street in Dublin. In later life Matilda became quite deaf and used an ear trumpet. She didn’t suffer fools gladly and would set down her ear trumpet on the table if she was bored by the conversation!

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