Isabel Cookson

Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893-1973), botanist and palaeobotanist, was born on Christmas Day 1893 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, youngest daughter of John Cookson and only child of his second wife Elizabeth (born Somers). She was educated at Methodist Ladies' College, Hawthorn, gaining honours in anatomy, physiology, and botany in the Senior Public Examination. She also developed skills as a pianist.

At the University of Melbourne she graduated in 1916 with honours in zoology and botany, gaining the exhibition in the latter. She represented the University in inter-university tennis. Between 1916 and 1930 she was awarded several research grants and scholarships to pursue botanical research in the Department of Biology, University of Melbourne. She also tutored undergraduate students in that department and at Newman College. During these years she investigated crown rot in walnut trees and then turned her attention to fossil plants. Her palaeobotanical studies were both pioneering and significant, bringing her international recognition and acclaim.

With Professor W. H. Lang, University of Manchester, Isabel Cookson published several important papers on some of the oldest known vascular land plants occurring in Victoria during latest Silurian and Early Devonian times (about 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. It is from this work that theories have been developed on early land plant evolution.

In 1930 when a separate Botany Department was established in the University of Melbourne, Isabel Cookson lectured to the first evening course in first year botany. She was awarded her DSc in 1932. In the 1940s she turned her attention to microscopic fossil plant remains: to spores, pollen, and phyto-plankton micro-organisms. Studies on these and on 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 recognised by CSIRO, the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, and the University of Melbourne, where, in 1949, a Pollen Research Unit was established under her leadership. Her official retirement was in 1959, but she continued productive research until her death on 1 July 1973.

In 1957 she was elected corresponding member of the Botanical Society of America and during 1959-62 acted as honorary associate in palaeontology to the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum of Victoria). A symposium was held at the University of Queensland in 1971 to commemorate her outstanding contributions to palaeobotany and the papers were published by the Geological Society of Australia. In her research career she published 85 papers, 52 of them in collaboration with seventeen other scientists. Thirty of these were published after her retirement. Her name is honoured by an award granted annually for the best palaeobotanical paper presented at the Botanical Society of America meetings.

Known affectionately as Cookie by her colleagues, she had a close circle of friends with whom she shared her musical and travel interests. As a young woman, she was left to support and nurse her mother through a long illness and under strained financial circumstances. After World War II, when her university salary improved, she developed skills as an astute investor on the stock exchange. Nevertheless, she was never wasteful and used her financial resources to support her post-retirement research and overseas visits associated with that research.

Mary E. Dettmann Geological Society of Australia Special Publication no 4 1973.