Alumna searches for botanist’s trailblazing work

Illustration by Anna SoperOne surviving photo of botanist Kate Crooks, showing her in full-length pose in a formal dress with gigot sleeves, offers no hint of her botanical passion or the mucky, wooded wilderness she would have traversed to gather her specimens.

During her lifetime, ground-breaking botanist Kate Crooks received international acclaim for her work. But the whereabouts of those labours today – 500 pages of plant samples Crooks collected and pressed in the 1860s – remain a puzzle that Anna Soper, MLIS’16, is determined to solve.

Soper’s quest is more than mere curiosity. Tracking down the collection could help us understand more about botanical diversity, meteorology and the environment in pre-industrialized Southwestern Ontario. A discovery also might explain how and why Crooks’ work was apparently forgotten, even by her descendants.

Catharine McGill Crooks, known as Kate throughout her life, was raised by her mother and sisters, first in Niagara-on-the-Lake and then in Cambridge, Ont. She was a self-taught botanist at a time when the study was gaining ground in Canada but was rare for a woman to undertake.

“I first came across her name two years ago during Canada150 (celebrations),” said Soper, a librarian at Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston.

In 2015, Soper curated a Western Libraries exhibition of rare books from the collection of John Davis Barnett (who was also a plant hunter). “I’m a gardener. I like cultivated flowers, but I also like wildflowers because they pop up in unexpected places.”

When she decided to mark the sesquicentennial by conducting a local ‘flora’ ­– the term used to describe a list of plant life of a region – she found repeated mention of Crooks in the annals of the Kingston-based Botanical Society of Canada.

She recalled thinking, ‘Who is this person? I’ve never heard of her before.’ In further research, she found high praise of the young woman’s extensive herbarium collection.

“It was a real mystery. How come I can’t find anything about her when she seems to be such an important botanist in her time?”

Soper continues to hunt for nuggets of information from genealogies, obscure journals and people who know people who know people in the field.

Anna Soper

Anna Soper, MLIS’16, is on a quest to find more information about trailblazing 19th-century botanist Kate Crooks.

Here’s some of what Soper does know:

As a young adult, Crooks was a trailblazer as she collected specimens in the Westminster wetlands of London (which was then more hinterland than village), as well as venturing in and around St. Thomas, Hamilton and Cambridge.

One surviving photo, showing her in full-length pose in a formal dress with gigot sleeves, offers no hint of her botanical passion or the mucky, wooded wilderness she would have traversed to gather her specimens.

She plucked and pressed an extensive volume of specimens for her flora – having several of each species helped make connections with other botanists, who tended to trade specimens like hockey cards – and she also added to her brother-in-law’s flora.

In 1862, Crooks’ collection of dried botanical specimens won an honourable mention when displayed at the International Exhibition in London, England.

Her influence on the scientific record of Ontario plant life is evident in the citations and accolades of contemporary journals.

Then, a decade after she began collecting and eight days after the birth of her third child, Crooks died.

Her botanical specimens were … well, no one seems to know what happened to them.

Were they discarded? Tucked into some unknown attic? Scattered piecemeal across other collections? Or might they be hiding in plain sight in some filing cabinet, labelled by specimen but not by collector’s name?

McGill University Herbarium Curator // Special to Western NewsThis is 19th Century botanist Kate Crooks’ only known specimen. It is stored at McGill University’s Herbarium.

It astounds Soper that the record-keeping of the time and the databases of today include the name and description of specimens and where each was found, but sometimes omit the collector’s name.

The imprecision of it all ruffles her methodical nature.

“As a librarian, I’ve only ever worked in places where things are catalogued extensively,” she said. “It’s perturbing to know the original labels may be missing.”

So far, her search has taken her to sources at Kew Gardens in England and to herbaria and gardens and museums at Western, Queen’s, Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal.

To date, just one specimen has rewarded her efforts: a wildflower called rose pink Sabatia angularis, which is now locally extinct in Ontario. Gathered in Hamilton in 1865, it is in the collection of McGill University’s Herbarium.

The life of Kate Crooks has become something of a mild obsession for Soper.

She has written a lengthy piece about Crooks for an entry in Atlas Obscura, which specializes in little-known people and places.

As much as she hopes to find more plant specimens for the botanical evidence they might uncover, she also hopes their rediscovery can offer a proxy answer to the nagging questions Soper has about legacy.

What, she asks, makes some people endure in the collective memory – contemporary botanists such as Catharine Parr Traill and John Macoun, to cite just two examples – while others are as fleeting as summer wildflowers?

“I’d love to write a book on this. I’ve been taken by her story and I’d love to share it more widely.”