Researcher rediscovers a great ‘forgotten’ Australian woman of science

  Last updated April 26, 2018 at 9:57 am


Celebrating the life’s work of seminal Australian female naturalist Edith Coleman was no easy task, as award-winning author and Flinders University researcher Dr Danielle Clode discovered when preparing her eighth book, The Wasp and the Orchid.

English-born Australian naturalist Edith Coleman.

This remarkable story ­– of an amateur naturalist who, in the 1930s, emerged through a male-dominated realm to help uncover the extraordinary secrets of pseudo-copulation, a strange phenomenon where some orchids reward pollinating male wasps with a kind of ‘sex’ instead of nectar – had faded from public memory but compelled Dr Clode to persist with detailed research.

For over 20 years, Dr Clode pursued the threads of Edith’s story through natural history collections, archives, articles and in the recollections of her family, friends and peers. It presented such a fascinating tale that she won unexpected approval from a major publishing house to develop the research into a popular non-fiction book.

The resulting publication, The Wasp and the Orchid (Picador, 2018) tells the story of how Edith became one of the key researchers of pseudo-copulation, then wrote prolifically for myriad newspapers and magazines on natural science and many other topics.

Its release also coincides with Dr Clode being awarded the Max Fatchen Fellowship as part of the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, announced during 2018 Adelaide Writers Week in March.

Edith Coleman became the first woman to be awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion. By the 1940s, Edith had become internationally lauded as one of Australia’s leading amateur naturalists, and her work is still cited by scientists in this field.

The project grew from an initially modest research engagement. After spotting a small grant offered by the Australian Orchid Foundation, Dr Clode applied to compile a bibliography of Edith Coleman’s popular articles, together with a brief biographical essay.

She thought it would probably be attractive to an academic publisher. But as her research revealed a more complex portrait of a unique woman, Dr Clode was encouraged by a commissioning editor to pitch her book idea to leading publishing house Picador.

Author and researcher Dr Danielle Clode.

Dr Clode has described the background to her research in a blog called “From little grants, big things grow”.

“I thought the book was too academic and not suitable for such a big publisher, but he saw the project as something much bigger and more exciting – not just an anthology and short biography, but a more expansive book exploring nature and science writing, lost women in science, and history,” says Dr Clode.

Her small grant that promised an obscure academic anthology has resulted in student training in science writing, an award-winning essay, peer-reviewed journal papers, a national radio broadcast and a major book publication.

“It’s worth keeping your eye out for small opportunities and see how they grow.”

Dr Clode will give a talk on her new book at the Biology Lecture Theatre at Flinders University at 11am-12 noon on Wednesday 12 April. She will also conduct talks in Melbourne this month, and chat with members of the Mitcham Library in Adelaide on Wednesday 23 April (6.30-8pm).

Listen to her interview about the book on ABC Radio National.

Having studied psychology, politics and zoology, Dr Clode is a Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences who has been published in fields as diverse as aged care, portraiture, genetics, drug addiction, history and creative writing, and is the author of several literary non-fiction books, including Voyages to the South SeasA Future in Flames and Prehistoric Marine Life in Australia’s Inland Sea.

The release of The Wasp and the Orchid  will be followed by a new children’s book from Dr Clode in August on Australian fossils, called From Dinosaurs to Diprotodons.

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