Science history: Lilian Suzette Gibbs, traveller and collector of plants

Jeff Glorfeld looks back on the life of a unique and influential botanist. 

Lilian Suzette Gibbs.

As we watch thousands of hectares of Brazilian forest go up in flames and the Trump administration act to open Alaska’s magnificent Tongass National Forest to logging, oil exploration and mining, it might be useful to remember the work of Lilian Suzette Gibbs.

Writing in New Scientist magazine in October 2015, journalist Bob Holmes recounts how, in February 1910, the British botanist walked across North Borneo and climbed Mount Kinabalu, in what is now Sabah.

She later wrote: “The untrodden jungle of fiction seems to be non-existent in this country. Everywhere the forest is well worked and has been so for generations.”

Mount Kinabalu, part of the Crocker Range, is the highest mountain in Malaysia, at more than 4000 metres.

Sir Hugh Low was the first European to reach its summit, in 1851, followed by Gibbs, the first European woman to climb it, leading a botanical field expedition which identified more than 15 new plant species.

Holmes describes the excursion. “What Gibbs saw was a seemingly curated tropical forest, regularly set alight by local tribes and with space carefully cleared around selected wild fruit trees, to give them room to flourish. The forest appeared to be partitioned and managed to get the most rattan canes, fibre for basketry, medicinal plants and other products.

“Generation after generation of people had cared for the trees, gradually shaping the forest they lived in. This wasn’t agriculture in the way we know it today but a more ancient form of cultivation, stretching back more than 10,000 years. Half a world away from the Fertile Crescent, Gibbs was witnessing a living relic of the earliest days of human farming.”

Gibbs was born in London, England, on 10 September 1870. Engaging in a life-long fascination with plants, at age 19 she entered Swanley Horticultural College before taking up botany studies at the Royal College of Science – today’s Imperial College London.

After completing her education, she went to work in the Natural History section of the British Museum in London.

Although she was based in London, she spent most of her career travelling the world, and became recognised as an authority on mountain ecosystems.

An article in the Global Plants section in the JSTOR online digital library lists some of the places she visited in search of undiscovered plant life: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Iceland, Indonesia, Malaysia, the US and Zimbabwe.

The article says that in 1907 Gibbs travelled to Fiji, where she explored high-altitude flora on the northern slopes of the Mount Victoria range. She visited New Zealand on her way home from Fiji, concentrating on the country's bryophyte flora.

“Travelling from Auckland to Bluff, she collected in the Waitakere Ranges, and discovered four new species of liverwort… Although enamoured by the flora she encountered there, Gibbs was not impressed by the destruction of forests in New Zealand, where stumps and grassland for grazing was taking over the landscape.

“She reported on this on her return to England: ‘The results of deforestation everywhere to be witnessed in the country between Auckland and the Bluff were such as to create an impression as painful as it was indelible. Past and present evidences of the destruction haunt me everywhere’."

Ill-health began to limit her travels in 1921, and she died in 1925 at Santa Cruz, on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and was buried there.

According to JSTOR, the genus Gibbsia Rendle (Urticaceae) and the moss species Calobryum gibbsiae Steph. and Lepidozia gibbsiana Steph. were named in her honour. Miss Gibb's Bamboo (Racemobambos gibbsiae (Stapf) Holttum) also commemorates her.

In an interesting footnote, the article says Gibbs was known to be “a characterful woman”, and “obituarists noted her hostessing skills and feminist ideals. While an inveterate traveller and serious scientist, her plant specimens are somewhat scrappy with difficult-to-read labels. She nevertheless made an important contribution to the knowledge of plants in the places she visited.”

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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