Irene Manton and Ida Roper

Irene Manton and Ida Roper were two brilliant women botanists collecting plants in two very different ways. Our Curator of Natural Science, Clare Brown, explores the specimens we have in our collection from both women. 

In 2015, Leeds Museums and Galleries was fortunate enough to have Leeds University’s plant collection transferred to us. Along with the roses, ferns, mosses and thistles came the collections of Irene Manton and Ida Roper: treasure-troves of leafy loveliness.

A white sheet with dried plants attached.
One of Ida Roper’s hop specimens. She had an eye for laying out plants beautifully.

Both Irene and Ida were phenomenal botanists. Ida’s gorgeous collection is fastidiously documented, extremely extensive and beautifully laid out. Her contribution to science and natural history covers the country, and her reputation, in Bristol in particular, lives on. Irene’s collections reflect her interest in chromosomes and cytology. As Professor of Botany at the University of Leeds (1945-1969) she pioneered the post-war changes the institution needed to push its science reputation skyward. I’ve never seen botanical sheets with chromosome numbers on before:

A dried plant specimen taped to a piece of paper with a label in the corner.
One of Irene Manton’s specimens. I love the spaces for Fixation and Chromosome numbers.

As an aside, it’s amazing to look at the world Irene was operating in by reading the papers some of her specimens are still wrapped in. This fern, collected in 1956, is surrounded by stories and adverts from The Sunday Express on 15th April, one story discusses how safe it would be to let your husband go on a trip to Paris (quite safe, apparently).

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Ida Mary Roper (1865 – 1935) was the first female president of the Bristol Naturalists Society. She carried out most of her collecting in the south west and I cannot establish quite why she bequeathed her collection to the University of Leeds before she died. She was clearly a careful and thoughtful botanist as the sheets she produced are beautiful. They reflect how active she was in the Botanical Exchange Club of the British Isles and her sheets can be found in herbaria across the country.

In contrast, and slightly later than Ida – Irene lived 1904 to 1988 – Irene’s collection is less concerned with beauty and more the preservation of plants for genetic research. Irene’s contribution to the life of the university was profound. I was lucky enough to talk to an old colleague of hers about her impact. Irene (pronounced I-reen-ee) was a formidable force and set to directing the botany department at Leeds in a single-minded way. She reportedly wore the same outfit – a beige polo shirt with knee-length skirt – her entire career and was very amused when an article on women scientists, including her, featured in Vogue. She is immortalised at Leeds with a plaque and a building named after her.

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Holding these women up as pioneering women of science is easy – they were both, and Irene in particular, at the forefront of botanical study in the 20th century. But I do think it’s interesting that they both excelled as botanists. From the 19th to the mid-20th century, botany might have been considered a particularly ladylike occupation. At Leeds we also have collections made by women in the molluscs but other areas, like geology, entomology and taxidermy are dominated by men. Why botany? Presumably because plants are appropriately feminine? Other disciplines are perhaps more gory or have too many hammers to be considered refined occupations. Ida and Irene may, as women, have been channeled away from other disciplines but cream will always rise to the top and it gave botany two brilliant champions whose legacies live on in Leeds.

 

By Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science at Leeds Museums & Galleries.

An exhibition in response to Ida Roper’s work is at Leeds Central Library from 11-24 July 2019, in collaboration with The Plant Room and the University of Leeds, and has some of our Roper specimens on display.

Explore the two workshops running alongside this exhibition: a writing and botanical workshop and a Natural Dyes Workshop with artist Ffion Taverner.

For further information, or if you would like to see Ida or Irene’s collections (or both), they are held at Leeds Discovery Centre. Please email discovery.centre@leeds.gov.uk to book an appointment to visit.

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