Turns out we eastern Victorians do not stand on that magnificent continent Gondwana which slowly slid about the planet, but mostly on an ancient ocean floor which pushed and buckled its way to form our terra firma.
The ‘Tasman Fold Belt System’, as it is apparently now referred to in geological circles, is visible in the acutely angled bands of red and yellow rock flanking the road cuttings between Melbourne and Mansfield – many of them revealed in the 1850s as gold prospectors made their urgent way to the goldfields further North.
A cutting for Limestone Rd near Yea in the 1870s also unearthed a treasure trove of exquisitely fossilised plants a mere 415million years after pressure on the Silurian shale and sand preserved their impressions in the rock. The findings, while noted at the time, were not much remarked on (it seems) for another 60 years, when one remarkable woman started to pay them some attention.
The earliest know evidence of terrestrial plant life – fossil of Barganawathia longifolia
A tale of two Botanists
Early in the 80s I navigated the old Botany lecture theatre with crutches and a strapped up ankle and found myself (unusually) in the front row listening with great intent to a young Geoff McFadden wax lyrical about Antarctic algae.
While I was struck by an immediate desire to follow the future Professor McFadden to any part of the Antarctic wilderness, I didn’t really appreciate that I was possibly sitting in the same spot as Isabel ‘Cookie’ Cookson, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1916 as one of a handful of women scientists (trained in the western scholarly tradition) who stepped out to uncover the mysteries of our vast continent. Dr Cookson went on to become one of the School’s most prodigious scholars who, in 1935, worked out that the Limestone Rd rocks had been imprinted with the earliest evidence of vascular plant life in the world – marking the transition from marine to terrestrial plants.
Like young McFadden, Cookson was consigned to schooling first years but for her this went on late into her career and much of her research was self-funded. They both imparted their enthusiasm to a next generation of researchers interested in Botany; McFadden has recruited a healthy looking team of researchers / surfers, while Cookson nurtured women scientists in the field of palaeontology and related research. Both also have labs named after them, but while McFadden ultimately has been recognised with a professorship, this honour was never conferred on Cookson as, even by the 50s, women could only rise to Research Fellow.
Her biographical notes by Mary Dettmann reveal much about Cookson’s research career but, for me, something remains elusive and enigmatic in her determined and solitary endeavour and where is she in the National consciousness? Surely if Joseph Banks was drilled into our minds we should also have know about Isabel Cookson – or was it that I was too engrossed by Antarctic algae to hear Cookson’s story?
Susan Turner’s reference to Cookson alongside the Australian women geoscientists who came before or followed in her footsteps says much in its title – Invincible but mostly invisible…
Some further references and abstracts about Dr Cookson and her findings plus a couple on the Yea fossil site are added here.
Dr Isabel Cookson – palaebotanist
Known around the world by admiring colleagues as ‘the indefatigable Cookie’, Dr Cookson was one of the first professional women scientists in Australia. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1916, where she also tutored and lectured in botany and later became a research fellow.
Her work took her to London and Manchester in the 1920s, where she worked closely with and influenced other leading scientists of the day. Her published research, spanning 1921–1970, was often self-funded and produced great insights into the history and evolution of the continent’s flora.
The Cooksonia plant genus, containing the oldest known land plants was named in her honour, and the Botanical Society of America’s Isabel Cookson Award commemorates her work. The Cooksonia fossils, found mainly in Europe, are older than the Yea flora fossils. However, Cooksonia was a smaller and simpler plant than Baragwanathia, its Southern Hemisphere relative, and had no leaves.
Invincible but mostly invisible: Australian women’s contribution to geology and palaeontology
The first Australian palynologist: Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) and her scientific work
Top sites and refs about the Yea fossil site and geological area
Geological Society of Victoria