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Cookson, Isabel Clifton (1893–1973)

by Mary E. Dettmann

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

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973), by unknown photographer, 1942

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 136506

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973), botanist and palaeobotanist, was born on Christmas Day 1893 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, third and youngest daughter of English-born John Cookson, gentleman, and only child by his second wife Elizabeth, née Somers, from Adelaide. Educated at Methodist Ladies' College, Kew, Isabel gained honours in anatomy, physiology and botany in the senior public examination. She also developed skills as a pianist, was a prefect and played in the school's first tennis team. At the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1916; D.Sc., 1932) she graduated with exhibitions in zoology and botany. Tennis remained an interest and she competed in intervarsity matches.

Appointed demonstrator in botany (1916), in 1916-17 Cookson was awarded a government research scholarship (for work on the flora of the Northern Territory), the MacBain research scholarship in biology, a first-class honours scholarship in botany and other grants. She tutored at the university and pursued botanical research on the longevity of cut flowers and on crown rot in walnut trees. Visiting England in 1925-26, she continued her work at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, and, on a return visit in 1926-27, at the University of Manchester.

Back in Melbourne, in 1929 Cookson turned her attention to fossil plant studies, which brought her international recognition and acclaim. Collaborating with Professor W. H. Lang, of the University of Manchester, she published several important papers on some of the oldest-known vascular land plants that occurred in Victoria during the latest Silurian and Early Devonian times (c.370-410 million years ago). She collected many of the specimens herself from rocks exposed in rugged terrain near Walhalla and at other localities in the upper reaches of the Yarra River. From this work, theories have been developed on early land-plant evolution. Cookson also researched more recent fossil plants (c.10-20 million years old) from coal deposits at Yallourn. Her research showed that Huon pine and several other conifers and flowering plants—which now occur in the vegetation of austral regions—grew within the coal-forming flora. In 1930 she was appointed lecturer in botany at the University of Melbourne, a post she was to hold until 1947; she was responsible for the evening course in first year botany.

During the 1940s Dr Cookson began working on microscopic fossil-plant remains. Her studies of spores, pollen and phytoplankton, and of fossil woods, leaves and fruits, provided a wealth of evidence on the composition of Australia's past vegetation. Moreover, she demonstrated the usefulness of plant microfossils in geological correlation and in oil exploration. The significance of this pioneering work was recognized by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, and by the University of Melbourne which established in 1949 a pollen research unit under her leadership. In 1952 she was appointed research fellow in botany.

Cookson had been a keynote speaker at the official opening in 1947 of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, India. She held a Leverhulme research grant at the University of Manchester in 1948-49. Elected a corresponding member (1957) of the Botanical Society of America, she was a life member (from 1959) of the Royal Society of Victoria. In 1959-62 she acted as honorary associate in palaeontology to the National Museum of Victoria, to which she had donated her collection of palaeobotany in 1950. Papers given at a symposium held at the University of Queensland in 1971 to honour her outstanding contributions to palaeobotany were published by the Geological Society of Australia. In her research career of fifty-eight years she published eighty-five papers, fifty-two of them in collaboration with seventeen other scientists. Thirty were published after her retirement in 1959.

Known affectionately as Cookie by her colleagues, she had a close circle of friends with whom she shared her interests in music and travel. Although she was an entertaining conversationalist, her thoughts were never far from her research. In later years she organized her working hours so as to be free to listen to the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 'Blue Hills' and the 'Argonauts'. As a young woman she had been left to nurse her mother through a long illness under strained financial circumstances. After World War II, when her university salary increased, Isabel developed skills as an investor on the stock exchange; she used the profits to support her research in retirement and her trips abroad. She died on 1 July 1973 at her Hawthorn home and was cremated; her estate was sworn for probate at $169,112. Her name is commemorated by an award for the best palaeobotanical paper presented at the annual meeting of the Botanical Society of America.

Select Bibliography

  • R. T. M. Pescott, Collections of a Century (Melb, 1954)
  • J. E. Glover and G. Playford (eds), Mesozoic and Cainozoic Palynology (Canb, 1973)
  • F. Kelly, Degrees of Liberation (Melb, 1985)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 16, no 3, Nov 1973, p 133
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, May 1983.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mary E. Dettmann, 'Cookson, Isabel Clifton (1893–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 October 2016.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973), by unknown photographer, 1942

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 136506