Invisible but invincible

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.


National Heritage

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

  • Susan Turner
    Susan Turner
Impact Factor: 2.58).  01/2007; 281(1):165-202. DOI: 10.1144/SP281.11


Women have played a significant role in Australian geoscience, and especially in palaeontology. ‘Australian’ women gained degrees by the early 20th century and began to contribute intensively. Australian-born young women already immured to the rigours of climate and culture, collected and illustrated fossils, enrolled in the first university courses, thrived in the field, in some instances outnumbering and out-achieving men. Where women palaeontologists made their mark they often energetically concentrated on a taxonomic group, making them their own, as Isabel Cookson did with palynology, Joan Crockford with bryozoans, Irene Crespin especially with foraminifans, Dorothy Hill with corals, Ida Brown with brachiopods, Nell Ludbrook with molluscs, Elizabeth Ripper with stromatoporoids, Kathleen Sherrard with graptolites, and Mary Wade, initially with foraminiferans and then the Ediacaran fauna. Brown, Crespin, Hill, Ludbrook, Wade and their contemporaries did alpha taxonomy, classical geology and biostratigraphical studies that laid the foundations for making maps and work that became recognized nationally and internationally. Some achieved greatness; some – Hill, Cookson, Ludbrook and Phillips Ross – by leaving the country, either to gain their higher degree or to work. Many – for example, Hosking, Johnston, Prendergast, Richards, Ripper, Sullivan and Vincent – are or have been mere shadowy figures with a few publications and then oblivion or even tragedy. Women in geosciences spanning the 20th century in Australia contributed some hundreds of scientific papers, maps and textbooks.

The first Australian palynologist: Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) and her scientific work

  • James B. Riding
    James B. Riding
  • Mary E. Dettmann
    Mary E. Dettmann
Alcheringa An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology (Impact Factor: 1.12).  01/2014; 38(1). DOI: 10.1080/03115518.2013.828252


Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) of Melbourne, Australia, was one of that country’s first professional woman scientists. She is remembered as one of the most eminent palaeontologists of the twentieth century and had a distinguished research career of 58 years, authoring or co-authoring 93 scientific publications. Isabel worked with great distinction on modern and fossil plants, and pioneered palynology in Australia. She was a consumate taxonomist and described, or jointly described, a prodigious total of 110 genera, 557 species and 32 subspecific taxa of palynomorphs and plants. Cookson was a trained biologist and initially worked as a botanist during the 1920s. At the same time she became interested in fossil plants and then, Mesozoic–Cenozoic terrestrial (1940s–1950s) and aquatic (1950s–1970s) palynomorphs. Cookson’s research into the late Silurian–Early Devonian plants of Australia and Europe, particularly the Baragwanathia flora, between the 1920s and the 1940s was highly influential in the field of early plant evolution. The fossil plant genus Cooksonia was named for Isabel in 1937 by her principal mentor in palaeobotany, Professor William H. Lang. From the 1940s Cookson focussed on Cenozoic floras and, with her students, elucidated floral affinities by comparative analyses of micromorphology, anatomy and in situ pollen/spores between fossil and extant taxa. This led to an interest in pre-Quaternary and Quaternary terrestrial pollen and spores; hence Isabel was the first palynologist in Australia. Her work on Paleogene and Neogene pollen and spores during the 1940s and 1950s provided incontrovertible evidence of the former widespread distribution of many important elements of Southern Hemisphere floras. During the early 1950s, while approaching her 60th year, Isabel turned her attention to marine palynomorphs. She worked with great distinction with Georges Deflandre and Alfred Eisenack, and also as a sole author, on acritarchs, dinoflagellate cysts and prasinophytes from the Jurassic to Quaternary of Australia and Papua New Guinea. She also co-authored papers on aquatic palynomorphs with Lucy M. Cranwell, Norman F. Hughes and Svein B. Manum. Isabel Cookson laid out the taxonomic basis for the study of Australasian Mesozoic and Cenozoic marine palynofloras by establishing, or jointly establishing, 76 genera and 386 species of marine microplankton. Her studies throughout her career, although especially in marine palynology, concentrated largely on taxonomy. However, she was one of the first palynologists to demonstrate the utility of dinoflagellate cysts for relative age dating and correlation in geological exploration.

The Yea wetlands – worth exploring the new layers on the Silurian landscape

Top sites and refs about the Yea fossil site and geological area

Geological Society of Victoria

Geocaching – Yea fossils



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