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Icons of the West: Lucy M Cranwell


On 8 June 2000, Dr Lucy May Cranwell Smith MA, DSc, DSc (hon). FLS, FRSNZ died in Tucson, Arizona, aged 93, bringing down the curtain on the glittering career of one of New Zealand’s pioneering women scientists.

Lucy Cranwell, who was born and grew up in Henderson and attended Henderson Primary School, was one of those people who were connected to history. Her father and others created the area in Henderson today known as Pomaria and close relatives at one time owned the historic Falls Hotel. Her mother was one of the first students enrolled at the Elam School of Art.

Lucy went on to Epsom Girls’ Grammar where she excelled at sports, and then to Auckland University graduating with a BA with an odd mixture of English, Botany, French and Economics, with additional studies in Journalism and Geology. Odd it may have been, but it combined to underpin a lifetime’s work in branches of botany, about which she was able to write with style and flair.

Drawing upon the encouragement that she had received from Henry Swan, she went on to complete an MA in Botany. At the same time she became a keen tramper who could probably outwalk anyone else in the University Tramping Club. She and her lifelong friend Dr Lucy Moore (the two Lucys), were even the subject of a poem, “Tramping Girls of Auckland “ by Professor Arnold Wall, after they had traversed the Waitakeres from the Anawhata Hut (that the two Lucys helped to build) to the Swanson rail station, in pouring rain.

Within days of her graduation in 1929, Lucy (again with the support of Henry Swan) was hired as the first woman Head of Botany at the Auckland Museum, a post she held until 1944 when she departed to live in America with the American serviceman she had married the year before.

Her first task as head botanist was to set up a 10,000 plant herbarium using specimens already on hand. During her tenure, however, she personally added 4,000 plant species to the herbarium. In 1937 she was a founder of the Auckland Botanical Society.

The two Lucys often worked and tramped in tandem. They tramped into some our toughest terrain to study the ecology and greatly expand New Zealand’s knowledge of its botany and bio-diversity. Less well known is that Lucy Cranwell also made a significant contribution to knowledge of our marine biology.

In 1930 she obtained a grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to study marine algae and according to Dr Wendy Nelson in giving the 1993 Lucy Cranwell Lecture to the Auckland Botanical Society: “Lucy Cranwell’s pioneering expeditions and collections constitute a significant legacy.”

But Lucy Cranwell’s greatest work was still to come. One of her developing interests was the study of swamps and bogs and endeavouring to accurately date them. This led her to the developing science of palynology. Literally translated this means the study of dust, but in the scientific world it generally relates to the study of microfossils to help to understand our botanical and geological history.

Typically, Lucy was an apt student and during a visit to Scandinavia was quick to adapt to the new discipline, under the tutelage of one of the founders of the science; Lennart von Post. A Swedish naturalist and geologist, von Post was the first to publish quantitative analysis of pollen.

In 1937, in recognition of her pioneering work in the field both in New Zealand and in Sweden, Lucy Cranwell was made a Fellow of the Linnaean Society in London.

What Lucy learned about pollen analysis from von Post was later put to use in understanding the age and history of New Zealand’s bogs helping, in the process, to also get a better understanding of our geology.

In 1993 Lucy began a series of imaginative articles about native plants, for the Auckland Star newspaper. The articles were compelling works of literature rather than scientific dissertations. By the time the series finished four years later, it had run to 150 articles and inspired many Aucklanders, including hundreds of children,to get involved with New Zealand plants.

With the advent of war, she turned her talents to another pioneering effort,the production of a booklet called “Food Is Where You Find It: A Guide To Emergency Foods Of The Western Pacific”.

This guide to living off the land became standard issue for British, Commonwealth and American forces operating in the Pacific and Burma campaigns. It ran to six editions, four during the war and incredibly one in 1992 and the sixth in 1993 to help mark the 50th anniversary reunion of US Marines who served on Guadalcanal.

Said John Reid, then First Secretary of the New Zealand Legation in Washington in 1945, “I suppose you have been very satisfied with the extensive use that has been made by the American and British Armies of this booklet; possibly you were not aware of the fact that about two months ago the British Army staff here pointed out that there was nothing comparable available and asked permission to reprint 5,000 copies for their use.”

In 1943 Lucy married Watson Smith, then a captain of the US Army Airforce, and previously a lawyer who had turned to archaeology. He was to later become an outstanding researcher and expert in classifying ceramics. The couple went to live in America where, in time, Lucy discovered Richard Howard using her “Food Is Where You Find It” booklet in jungle survival classes. Howard went on to become a professor at Harvard.

Lucy Cranwell’s fame and reputation as one of the world’s outstanding microbiologists continued to grow throughout the remainder of her long career and she was heaped with honours. She won the Loder Cup (New Zealand’s premier conservation award) early in her career in 1937; she was also made a member of the Board of the Auckland Institute and Museum. She became a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1944 and received the Hector Medal from the Royal Society in 1957. In 1992, Auckland University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Science and seven years later the Auckland Museum bestowed the Lucy M Cranwell Honorary Fellowship. The Auckland Botanical Society memorialises her with the Lucy M Cranwell Lecture. She was appointed a fellow of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science in 1983 and in 1989, an Honorary Member of the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists.

She and Watson, who lived in their desert home called Casa Gondwana, created the Cranwell Award in Palynology for Graduate Students.