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IN THE NEWS, Wednesday 2nd November
Mary J. P. (Maura) Scannell R.I.P.
18 March 1924 – 1 November 2011
Always immaculately turned out, a fount of knowledge and a remarkable conversationalist, Maura Scannell has been a central figure in Ireland’s botanical world for over 60 years. A skilled horsewoman in her youth, Maura graduated from University College Cork and became Assistant Keeper of the Natural History Division of the National Museum in 1949. It was there that she developed her deep and thorough understanding of the cultural importance of plants in Irish culture and history.
Maura took a special interest in the botanical details of our past, identifying the various woods of all the Irish harps in the National Museum as well as numerous artefacts from Wood Quay as just two small examples. Her knowledge of charcoal, seeds, fibres and dye plants as well as microscopic algae and fungi and such esoteric subjects as ‘algal paper’ made her an inspiration to generations of botanists. To both young and old, Maura was supremely generous with her time and energy, and a tireless correspondent. She was never too busy to be diverted by an interested schoolboy or schoolgirl visiting the museum, and had a long association, as a respected judge since the 1960s, of the annual Irish Young Scientists Exhibition.
Many of todays leading Irish botanists owe their love of botany to the remarkable adult who took the time to impart her enthusiasm for the plant world. Her fostering of scientists was shared with all, and she assisted Evelyn Booth, then at the age of 82, to collate hundreds of records and to publish the Flora of County Carlow in 1979.
In 1970 she oversaw the transfer of the National Herbarium from the National Museum to the National Botanic Gardens, beginning a 20 year re-establishment of science at the Gardens. Last minute arrangements nearly resulted in major collections being disbursed, until Maura ensured they were moved in their entirety to the National Botanic Gardens. The nursery staff at Glasnevin were well used to her returning on a Monday morning with living plants to be grown on. Through careful studies of living plants she was able to make full use of the gardens as a centre for taxonomic understanding. A singular example was her dogged determination to resolve the identity of the ‘Renvyle Hydrilla’. Leading taxonomists in Britain had identified this plant as an Elodea, but when Maura finally flowered the plant in the Garden greenhouses she was able to prove that the plant was, as she had always suspected, Hydrilla verticillata. Her great interest in history and books gave her the foresight to enable the Herbarium to acquire one of its more remarkable treasures – a bound collection of specimens dating from the 1690s and once owned by Thomas Molyneaux, a founder of the Dublin Society – this was bought from the library at Moore Abbey, in Monasterevin. Her other hunch, to purchase the only known portrait of one the Garden’s founders – Walter Wade – was sadly ignored by the authorities at the time.
On her retirement in 1989 as Head of the National Herbarium, Maura Scannell had already established a remarkable body of work. Her collections in the herbarium are among the largest by any single botanist; all the more remarkable when one considers that most were obtained during her own leisure time. Since retiring she remained an active visitor to the herbarium, a field botanist and author, contributing specimens, answering queries and publishing papers.
The sum of her many specimens, publications and manuscripts represent a vast repository of knowledge about the plants that fill our landscape. Her dedication and assistance meant that she contributed more to the published work of others than to her own, through her thorough attention to correspondence, identification of samples and her intimate and eclectic knowledge of Irish history, geography, ethnography, zoology, geology and botany. From 1963 to 1994 she had remained a constant and active member of the Irish regional committee of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, and in 1995 she was made an Honorary Member of the society.
Maura was presented with the National Botanic Gardens Medal in May 2008, in acknowledgment of her truly remarkable contributions to Irish botany. At the presentation she gave a spirited talk about her delight in the scale of botany, from the microscopic fungi she had discovered, new to science, in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens (Dothiorella davidiae on the fruits of Davidia involucrata in 1976), to exploring for plants in the west of Ireland. She described how it is the little things that are sometimes important, and botanists should record all that they see in a scientific manner, and that no information should ever be overlooked.
Maura produced over 200 scientific publications as well as several important floras and catalogues, besides her thousands of specimens and 10s of thousands of field observations she has left a thorough record of her correspondence in the National Herbarium. In the last year Maura has meticulously sorted her files and deposited a vast archive of her work at the Gardens - a remarkable assemblage of books, specimens, museum items and other ephemera associated with the Irish flora. She remained intellectually agile and fascinated by all around her to her dying day. She will be greatly missed by her colleagues, the staff at the gardens and botanists both at home and abroad.