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Celebrating Melbourne’s housewife naturalist

Over several flowering seasons Coleman dissected the flowers in question, sent the insects to an entomologist to determine their sex (male) and read through all of the related literature. She smeared onto a glass slide the droplets of liquid the insects expelled and then illustrated them.

These images held the key. They were the identical to those made by another biologist when he dissected the male insects and extracted their sperm.

The wasp, she found, was copulating and in so doing fertilising the orchid.

Some have sought to downplay Coleman’s role in this, describing it as a “parallel discovery” pre-empted by accounts by others working at the same time.

“But this is not really how science works,” Clode writes. “It is the accumulation of knowledge – replication, verification, extension and classification, not mere ‘discovery’ – that truly drives science.

Clode first came across Coleman’s name two decades ago when she was a recent biology graduate conducting research at the Museum of Victoria. She says that over the following years something about Coleman’s “writing, her research or her life” kept drawing her back.

Through the course of Clode’s book we hear about how Coleman immigrated to Australia with her family at the age of 13, how she trained to be a teacher and about her long affliction with Meniere’s disease. We chart how her research and writing “began in her domestic sphere and circled out, in incremental detail, into the bush beyond”.

So why has she been forgotten? “Because she was a scientist, and because she was an amateur,” is Clode’s assessment. “She’s been forgotten because she wrote for newspapers, magazines and academic journals, rather than books.

She’s been forgotten because she was Australian, because she wasn’t Australian enough, and most of all because she was a nature writer.”

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