Winifred Curtis’ Vasculum – collecting botanical knowledge

No. 7

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Dr Winifred Mary Curtis (1905–2005) was a leading figure in Tasmanian botanical research and education. Born in London, she moved with her parents to Hobart, where she began working as a demonstrator in the University of Tasmania's biology department. Winifred's botanical research focused on plant embryology and cytology, and she was the first to apply these concepts to the Australian flora.

Winifred rose to the rank of Reader (the equivalent of Associate Professor), the first woman at the university to do so. More importantly, she was the first woman to head an academic department, as Acting Head of Botany. She was fond of teaching, and of her students, who respected her knowledge – despite her reputation for being formidable.

Winifred's commitment to teaching led to her greatest professional achievement – The Student's Flora of Tasmania. She began the task of updating Leonard Rodway's The Tasmanian Flora from 1903 for her students, little knowing that she would still be working on revisions and new editions 50 years later.

A vasculum is a container used to carry fresh plant specimens in the field. They are generally made from a durable, lightweight material, such as tin. Using one made field trips easier for plant collectors, as they had an easily accessible place for their fresh material, and the specimens were protected.

Vascula were relatively cheap and easy to make, and were commonly used in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Not all plant collectors used one, some preferring to use a field press or specimen book. In a pinch, collectors were known to carry specimens in their knapsack, their pockets, or even their hat. These makeshift methods produced poorer-quality specimens than those carried in a vasculum.

Winifred's vasculum is small and chipped – a humble object. Nevertheless, it accompanied her on field trips for more than 50 years, and has carried the entire flora of Tasmania, at one time or another.

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