Google Doodle celebrates botanist Carrie Derick

January 15, 2017 • 9:03 am

This didn’t appear on my Google screen, but reader Dennis tells me that yesterday Google in Canada posted a Doodle honoring the 155th birthday of Carrie Matilda Derick (1862-1941).


Derick, a geneticist specializing in plants, was in fact the first female professor in any subject in a Canadian university. She was also the founder of the botany department at McGill University, but wasn’t made a professor for three years after she’d been running the department! (See below.) The Library and Archives Canada recounts some of her achievements, which were not only in botany, but in popularization of science and political activism:

As well as teaching and doing research, Derick published numerous articles on botany, including “The problem of the ‘burn-out’ district of southern Saskatchewan,” “The early development of the Florideae,” and “The trees of McGill University.” Many articles were aimed at the scientific community, earning her the respect of colleagues around the world and the distinction of appearing in the 1910 edition of American men of science. Others were intended to bring an understanding of nature to a general audience. In addition, she wrote biographical sketches and political essays.

At the same time that she was leading a busy and sometimes difficult academic life, Derick was deeply involved in social activism. Her main interests were women’s suffrage and education, but she worked for many causes throughout her life. Her energy and commitment are reflected in a partial list of the organizations she was involved with: the Local Council of Women (Montreal); the Protestant Committee of the Council of Education; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the Montreal Suffrage Association; the National Council of Education; the Federation of University Women of Canada; and the Montreal Folklore Society.

Carrie Derick

Sadly, this Doodle is seen only in the blue places below, i.e., Canada. It’s the first one-country Doodle I’ve seen, and that’s a shame. It does us well to remember the indignities suffered not all that long ago by women in academia, and to mourn the loss of scientific advances caused by the marginalization of women. Wikipedia gives the evidence (my emphasis)

In 1891, Derick began her master’s program at McGill under David Penhallow and received her M.A. in botany in 1896. She attended the University of Bonn in 1901 and completed the research required for a Ph.D. but was not awarded an official doctorate since the University did not give women Ph.D. degrees. She then returned to McGill and “continued to work, teach, and administer” in the botany department. In 1905, “after seven years of lecturing, assisting Penhallow with his classes, researching and publishing, without any pay increments or offers of promotion, Derick wrote directly to Principal Peterson and was promoted to assistant professor” at one-third the salary of her male counterparts. Derick was only officially appointed as professor of comparative morphology and genetics by McGill in 1912 after three years of running the department following Penhallow’s death. She was the first woman both at McGill and in Canada to achieve university professorship. She retired in 1929.


Google Doodle celebrates Anna Atkins

March 16, 2015 • 6:55 am

This is my 9,970th post, which means that within the week we’ll get to post number 10,000. I’m still pondering the 172 comments on the thread following “The 10,000th post: what shall it be?“, in which readers suggested way to celebrate this landmark. If I decide to use one of those suggestions, that reader gets an autographed copy of WEIT with a cat drawn in it. Given that there will probably be nearly ten posts today, as there’s a lot to say, I expect the Big Day to be Thursday or Friday. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, today’s Google Doodle (click on screenshot below to go there) celebrates Anna Atkins (1799-1871), a British botanist and photographer. Today would be her 216th birthday, and her distinction was to be the first person to publish any book that included photographs. In fact, she may have been the first woman to take a photograph. The Doodle gives an idea of what her photos looked like:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 5.36.11 AM

Anna Atkins

Here’s the title page of that pathbreaking self-published book, which appeared in 1853 (the first commercially published book with photos, by William Henry Fox Talbot, appeared 8 months later). This and all photographs are taken from the British Library’s site.


The captions were in her Atkins’s own handwriting, and the book went through three editions. According to Wikipedia, only 17 copies still exist, and they’re extremely valuable: one was auctioned off for £229,250 in 2004. But you can see the whole book for free, as the British Library has most of it scanned in (go here).

Here’s one of the pages from the table of contents, in Atkins’s handwriting:


From Vox we have some information about the process she used (their text indented):

Early photographers struggled with a problem: they couldn’t easily develop their pictures because the existing techniques were slow, expensive, or required dangerous chemicals. Herschel came up with a solution: using an iron pigment called “Prussian blue,” he laid objects or photographic negatives onto chemically-treated paper, let them be exposed to sunlight for around 15 minutes, and then washed the paper. The remaining image revealed pale blue objects on a dark blue background. This was a cyanotype — a new way to print photographs permanently.


Herschel primarily used cyanotypes to copy notes, but when Atkins heard about the opportunity, she leapt at it. Though she’d shown herself to be a capable artist, she realized instantly that cyanotypes were a better way to capture the intricacies of plant life and avoid the tedium — and error — involved with drawing. As importantly, her passion for botany allowed her to see a new application of the exciting technology.

So, in 1843, she began making a photographic book of algae.

Atkins’ British Algae was the definition of a labor of love. Published in piecemeal over a decade, from the 1840s to the 1850s, the book was made at home using her own materials. From what we know, she collected the algae with the help of her friend Anne Dixon and dried and pressed it, the same way you might press flowers. Then, she identified it using William Harvey’s Manual of British Algae. Finally, she made the cyanotype by laying each piece upon the paper (that’s why, technically, her pictures are called photograms, not photographs, because they didn’t use a camera). The book’s text appears in her own elegant cursive.


The book wasn’t a profit-making enterprise for Atkins, but it was an important one. It stands as the first book illustrated with photographs, and it brought together photography and botany for the first time. Atkins took the most fleeting and unusual of subjects — British algae — and made it timeless.


You have to really love algae to do something like this.

I didn’t name the plant!

October 23, 2013 • 4:33 am

Psychotria elata, a neotropical plant in the family Rubiaceae, has become internet-famous because of its flowers—or rather the shape of the red bracts (modified leaves) before the flowers mature. As The Amusing Planet notes:

These gorgeous pair of red, luscious lips belong to a plant known as Psychotria elata, a tropical tree found in the rain forests of Central and South American countries like Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador. Affectionately, Psychotria elata is called Hooker’s Lips or the Hot Lips Plants. The plant has apparently evolved into its current shape to attract pollinators including hummingbirds and butterflies. According to Oddity Central, the bracts are only kissable for a short while, before they spread open to reveal the plant’s flowers.



Without having seen it, I am still 100% sure that Central and South American kids pick these bracts and run around with them in their mouths.


In the end, though, I think a less salacious and more appropriate name would be “Marilyn Monroe lips”


Moar mental health

February 26, 2012 • 9:58 am

I have gone into the lab to find that my Paphiopedilum orchid has bloomed.  I’m pretty sure this is not a hybrid, but a real, naturally-occurring species; sadly, I forgot the species name, but I’m sure Lou Jost or someone else will tell me, and perhaps give a bit of information about the flower:

Once a year I get this flower, which lasts for about ten days.  Lovely, ain’t it?

Lazarus plant: 30,000-year-old flower resurrected from naturally frozen seeds

February 22, 2012 • 9:11 am

I won’t go on about this cool new paper at length, for it’s already been described by Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science as well as in a piece at The New York Times.  Still, it behooves us to know about it. The upshot is that a group of Russian scientists recovered from the Siberian permafrost a cache of seeds and fruits stashed by ancient squirrels, and managed to use tissue culture to regenerate plants from immature fruits.  The estimated age of the seeds is 32,000-30,000 years old, so this is clearly the most ancient organism ever “revived.”

The plant, a species that still exists (at least the morphological similarities suggest conspecific status), is Silene stenophylla. Silene (of which there are several species) is also known as “catchfly” or “campion”  (literate readers will recognize it as the flower with which Mellors the gamekeeper bedecked Lady Chatterly’s pubic hair in Lady Chatterly’s Lover).  It’s often used in evolutionary studies because some species have separate sexes while others do not, and ditto for sex chromosomes.  It could thus tell us something about the evolutionary origin of gender and gender-specific chromosomes.  Some species are also gynodioecious (i.e. some plants are “female” [male parts sterile], while other plants are hemaphroditic), and this could also give us a clue to how “male” versus “female” plants arose.

But I digress.  In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesby Svetlana Yashina et al., the authors describe finding a group of fossil burrows, 20-40 meters below the surface, in the permafrost of northeastern Siberia.  Some of these burrows contained as many as 600,000 seeds/fruits!  These were stashed by equally ancient ground squirrels of the species Urocitellus parryii:

The Arctic ground squirrel Urocitellus parryii, photographed by Ianaré Sévi.

Permafrost provides the dry and cold conditions needed to preserve seeds; that’s how they’re preserved in special seed banks.  Attempts to germinate the seeds failed, but they managed to grow one species of Silene by dissecting out the “placental tissue” (special tissue in the fruit to which the seed is connected), culturing it in nutrient media and then adding hormones (auxins, etc.), to induce formation of roots and shoots. And they got the plant to grow, flower, and, after cross fertilization with other ancient plants, set seed.  Here are two specimens of the plant grown from cultured ancient tissue:

The two articles cited above will give you more information.  What interests me most about this is that the “species” still exists, and this allows us to see how much evolutionary change has transpired in 30,000 years. (This is similar to the way that bacterial evolutionists can freeze an ancestral culture and then, after reviving it, compare it to its descendants that have undergone many generations of evolution).

The plant appears to have actually changed during those 30,000-odd generations.  (This is probably genetic rather than environmental change because the differences between ancient and modern plant are seen in the second generation of cultured ancient plants which have been produced by cross-mating them.)  The authors note the differences:

Thirty-six ancient plants (12 from each fruit) and 29 extant plants were morphologically tested. All ancient plants were morphologically identical. During vegetative development, the ancient and extant plants were morphologically indistinguishable from one another. However, at the flowering stage they showed different corolla shape: petals of extant flowers were obviously wider and more dissected (Fig. 3). Moreover, all flowers of the extant plants were bisexual (b) (Fig. 3A), whereas the primary flowers (two to three in number) of each ancient plant were strictly female (f) (Fig. 3 B and C, f), and then bisexual flowers were formed on each ancient plant (Fig. 3C, b).

For those botany geeks among us, here’s Figure 3 showing the differences (click to enlarge):

The one thing I really wanted to know, and which the authors didn’t study, is whether the ancient plants are reproductively compatible with the modern ones.  They crossed ancient plant with ancient plant, and showed that they cross readily, as of course do modern plants crossed with modern plants.  But they didn’t cross ancient plants with modern ones!  They need to do that.

If they found reproductive incompatibility in those crosses, that would suggest incipient (or full) speciation between ancestor and descendant, something that we rarely get to study because ancestor and descendants never get the chance to meet and mate (this would be like mating the 750,000 year old ancestors of Homo sapiens with modern H. sapiens, since a comparative number of generations have transpired).   And even if reproductive isolation didn’t evolve, one can still study the genetic basis of differences in petal shape and appearance of different kinds of flowers.  Ten to one the Russian team is doing this, and I look forward to the results.

h/t: Dr. John H. Willis III, esq.


Yashina, S., S. Gubin, S. Maksimovich, A. Yashina, and E. Gakhova. 2012. Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old fruit tissue buried in Siberian permafrost. Proc. Nat Acad Sci. USA, published ahead of print February 21, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1118386109

Cache of Darwin’s fossils found

January 18, 2012 • 1:23 pm

You’d think that Darwin’s Beagle collections had been pretty well worked over, but it turns out that we didn’t even know everything that Darwin collected. According to the Associated Press, Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleobotanist at the University of London, found a cache of 314 slides of specimens collected not only by Charles Darwin, but by his colleague Joseph Hooker and by John Henslow, Darwin’s college mentor.  The specimens were apparently misplaced  because Hooker forgot to catalog them before he took off on a field trip to Asia.  They appear to all be thin sections of fossil plants.

Imagine opening a dusty old cabinet and finding something like this:

That’s one of the specimens, and yes, that’s CD’s signature.  What is it?:

This image made available by the Royal Holloway, University of London on Tuesday Jan. 17, 2012 shows a polished section of a 40-million-year-old fossil wood collected by Charles Darwin in 1834 on Chiloe Island, South America in the course of his famous “Voyage of the Beagle.” British scientists have found scores of fossils the great evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin and his peers collected but that had been lost for more than 150 years. Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said Tuesday that he stumbled upon the glass slides containing the fossils in an old wooden cabinet that had been shoved in a “gloomy corner” of the massive, drafty British Geological Survey. (AP Photo/Royal Holloway, University of London, Kevin D’Souza Ho)

“It took me a while just to convince myself that it was Darwin’s signature on the slide,” the paleontologist said, adding he soon realized it was a “quite important and overlooked” specimen.

He described the feeling of seeing that famous signature as “a heart in your mouth situation,” saying he wondering “Goodness, what have I discovered!” . .

(I wouldn’t have used the word “Goodness!”)

Falcon-Lang added:

“To find a treasure trove of lost Darwin specimens from the Beagle voyage is just extraordinary,” Falcon-Lang added. “We can see there’s more to learn. There are a lot of very, very significant fossils in there that we didn’t know existed.”

Falcon-Lang expects great scientific papers to emerge from the discovery.

“There are some real gems in this collection that are going to contribute to ongoing science.”

Well, maybe, though my guess would be that they’d contribute more to the history of science than to ongoing research. We shall see.

A tree in Costa Rica

January 18, 2012 • 9:24 am

On the way to Biolley in the mountains of Costa Rica, my colleague, botanist Judy Stone, pointed out this magnificent specimen of Bursera simaruba, also known locally as indio desnudo, or the “nude Indian” tree. The name certainly derives from its reddish bark and the fact that it’s semi-deciduous, shedding its leaves completely before producing new ones.

The tree is found throughout tropical America, including the southeastern U.S., where it’s called the “gumbo-limbo tree”.

This specimen is nearly in the desnudo stage. Click to enlarge.

The tree has important medicinal uses for the locals, and is used to treat skin problems, digestive disorders, and infections.

I won’t often post single pictures from my trip to Costa Rica (I plan on doing posts with multiple photos), but this magnificent tree didn’t fit in anywhere.