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Coleman, Edith (1874–1951)

by Allan McEvey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Edith Coleman (1874-1951), naturalist, was born on 29 July 1874 at Woking, Surrey, England, daughter of Henry Harms, carpenter, and his wife Charlotte, née Edmunds. Edith was educated at Holy Trinity and St Mary's National School, Guildford, Surrey, and, after her family arrived in Melbourne in 1887, at Camberwell State School. From 1889 to 1898 she taught at six state schools in Gippsland, Maryborough and suburban Melbourne. On 7 April 1898 at Christ Church, South Yarra, she married with Anglican rites James George Coleman, a salesman and pioneer motorist.

Joining the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria in 1922, Edith Coleman immediately delivered a paper, 'Some Autumn Orchids', which exemplified the knowledge, love of nature and pleasing style that were to characterize the contributions she sent from her Blackburn home to the Victorian Naturalist for twenty-nine years. Her prolific output of natural history notes and papers was also published in the press, popular nature magazines, and in one or two scientific journals.

Through a series of papers (1927 to 1933) in the Victorian Naturalist, Coleman recorded her discovery of the pollination of three Cryptostylis orchid species by the Ichneumon wasp, Lissopimpla semipunctata, via the insect's pseudo-copulation with the orchid flower that resembles the female Ichneumon. Her descriptions 'created enormous world interest', and confirmed and extended overseas research on orchid pollination by insects. A member of the Australian Orchid Society, she published in its journal, as well as in the London periodicals, Orchid Review and Journal of Botany.

Other botanical subjects in which Coleman was interested ranged from the description of new species to the pollination of yucca in Australia by hive bees, and from medicinal and culinary herbs to the movements of plants and the spread of mistletoe. Her article, 'The Romance of Kipling's Dittany' (1940), was a delight of botanical folk-lore and herbal history. She studied animal life with equal ease and precision. While sometimes anthropocentric in expression, her observations were never without a naturalist's quest for the truth, whether touching 'the graceful courtship parades' of huntsman spiders, or the habits of the mountain grasshopper, pipe fish, lizards, phasmids, bats, case moths or her engaging echidnas. In addition, she compiled ornithological observations on the clustering of woodswallows, the pre-roosting flocking of common mynahs, the feeding habits of the tawny frogmouth, the use of herbs by birds and the nocturnal singing of budgerigars during rain after drought. Her daughter Dorothy regularly assisted her with drawings and observations.

The first woman to receive the Australian Natural History medallion (1949), Coleman generously helped beginners in natural history. Although English by birth, in her Come Back in Wattle Time (1935) she wrote—as an Australian—of the many soldiers in World War I who had received a tiny spray of wattle that 'whispered something deeper than ''Come Back"'. During World War II she raised money for the Australian Red Cross Society through sales of Angelica seeds from her garden. She died on 3 June 1951 at Sorrento, Victoria, and was buried in the local cemetery; her husband and two daughters survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Baines (compiler), The Victorian Naturalist Author Index, 1884-1975 (roneoed, Melb, 1976)
  • R. Desmond, Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists (Lond, 1977)
  • Victorian Naturalist, 67, Sept 1950, p 99, 68, July 1951, p 46
  • Woman's World, 1 Aug 1927, p 450
  • Wild Life, May 1950, July 1951
  • New Zealand Journal of Botany, 17, 1979, p 467
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 June 1951.

Citation details

Allan McEvey, 'Coleman, Edith (1874–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coleman-edith-9784/text17291, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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