Gulielma Lister (known as Gulie)

Botanist

An old portrait photograph in sepia of a woman with her hair tied into a bun, wearing a cream-coloured blazer

Image courtesy of Essex Field Club

  • BORN 28th October 1860, Sycamore House, 881 High Road, Leytonstone, Essex
  • DIED 18th May 1949, Sycamore House, 881 High Road, Leytonstone, Essex
  • WORKED She carried out much of her work at home in Leytonstone and in the family’s summer house at Lyme Regis. She also studied in the British Museum and Kew Gardens, as well as in Paris and Strasbourg.
  • HONOURS She was the first woman to be President of the Essex Field Club (1916-19). She was an early female member of other distinguished organisations, including being one of the first 15 women elected to the Linnaean Society (in 1904)
  • MINERVA SCIENTIFICA PROJECT Echoes from Essex 2020

Entry by Dr Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College Cambridge and member of the British Society for the History of Science.

A watercolour illustration of pink flowers

Painting of a flowering almond by Gulielma Lister (Image courtesy of Essex Field Club)

Artistic Connections

Her mother Susanna was a talented amateur artist who taught her the skills she needed to create her own water-colour illustrations

Music

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Education

She studied botany at Bedford College for a year when she was 16, but otherwise was educated at home by a governess and her parents. Trained by her artistic mother, she provided her own watercolour illustrations of fungi and other biological specimens. Her father recruited her as his scientific research assistant, but she became an expert in her own right, specialising in slime moulds, formerly classed as a type of fungi.

Occupations

Mycologist
Although Lister was keenly interested in birds and conifers, her over-riding passion was for fungi and slime moulds. She was renowned for making painstakingly accurate observations, and was a gifted illustrator.

A colour photograph of orange and cream mould growing on a log

Slime Mould (Image by Lairich Rig on geograph.co.uk)

Scientific Achievement

She worked closely with her father, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who publicly credited her contributions to his work on Mycetozoa. After his death, she produced revised editions of their book with her own coloured illustrations. She was a world expert in slime moulds, and published numerous scholarly papers on a wide range of plants.

Did You Know?

The Emperor of Japan was also a keen mycologist, and in 1933 he sent Lister two enamel vases to thank her for her help.

Determined to keep up-to-date with the latest European books about fungi, she learnt how to read Polish.

On field trips, she was inseparable from her basket for collecting fungi and her pocket telescope for watching birds.

An Inspiring Woman

She was a wonderful role model, appreciated as ‘a perfect gentlewoman with an old world courtesy’ who demanded that others match her own high standards. When she entered a Linnean Society meeting, she always removed her hat to emphasise that science is gender-neutral – the younger women were initially surprised, but followed her example. She was a keen supporter of the Botanical Research Fund, and helped to raise money for building a laboratory at the all-female Bedford College. Female networks were extremely important, and she was close to some of Britain’s most eminent women botanists.

Written on a gravestone in Friends’ Meeting House, Leytonstone (Image by Paul Ferris)


Lister grave (Image courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum)

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