Listen: Danielle Clode in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
In the 1920’s Melbourne housewife Edith Colman was not a likely contender to solve a puzzle that had baffled Charles Darwin. Edith was a nature lover, but this lady who had arrived in Australia from England when she was thirteen had no training or formal university qualifications. Yet she conquered the male dominated world of early 20th century science and made some truly groundbreaking discoveries.
“The Wasp and the Orchid – The Remarkable life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman” by Danielle Clode is a delightful book about a truly remarkable woman. Edith was a bit of a late starter, she gave her first paper, (on Australian native orchids,) at the age of 48 at a meeting of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria in 1929. She may have been a slow starter but once she got going her output was prodigious. Edith had a remarkable written output of over 300 articles for newspapers, magazines and scientific journals until her death in 1951. Her observations and writing were supported by her ability to draw flowers and insects with great accuracy.
Solved a Mystery Charles Darwin Couldn’t
During her lifetime she became recognised as a preeminent expert on orchids discovering many new ones and having one named for her. Just twenty years after giving that first paper in 1929 she was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Australian Natural History Medallion. She was described as “Australia’s greatest orchid expert” and a woman “who needed no introduction”.
Indeed, her determination and remarkable powers of observation led her to solve the mystery of orchid pollination a question that had stumped even the great Charles Darwin.
However, today the name Edith Coleman has faded into obscurity. How did this remarkable woman, with no training or connections Achieve so much so late in life? And why over the intervening years, have her achievements and her writing been forgotten? In ‘The Wasp and the Orchid – The Remarkable Life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman’, zoologist and award-winning writer, Danielle Clode, sets out to uncover Edit’s story from her childhood in England to her unlikely success sharing alson the way Edith’s lyrical and incisive writing and her uncompromising passion for Australian nature and landscape.
The Echidna Who Became a Pet
Edith believed you didn’t have to go far to observe nature and often found things on her own doorstep worthy of investigation. She also travelled the countryside on expeditions a pursuit much assisted by her arachnophobic husband James, one of the first motor car dealers in Victoria and involved in setting up the motorists organisation the RACV.
She often brought things home for further study, hence the museum specimen jars of spiders that scared her husband from the bedroom.
The book includes a delightful account of a three month old echidna who had come into the tent during one of the expeditions. “He shared our tent and intrigued us with his fascinating ways”, Edith wrote. “A small animated mat of fur and prickles, with almost invisible legs.”
They called him Stickly-prickly, Stickles for short, and took him home for closer study (with a legal permit to do so). Stickles had the run of the house and a suitcase for a bed on the sunny wired verandah. There was an old aviary for burrowing and plenty of supervised ant hunting in the garden. In time Stickles was joined by Prickles and later by other echidnas, usually rescued from dogs. The echidnas were released back into the wild close to where they were found. Edith wrote that she hoped that “on their release one of their wild kin might teach them to forget the indignity off this period of his existence as a domesticated echidna”.