Corona Diary – Day 57

Monday, 11 May

The eastern end of the von Bahrian hedge was not so exciting. After a hundred metres, a day care centre blocked the route and the few trees continuing behind it looked uncared for. But what I really wanted to see was a monument to female botanists who had been close to Linnaeus including his daughter, Elisabeth Christina, also a botanist, who lived nearby. I don’t find the monument but I do find a path named after her which passes through old cultivated ground near where her house used to be. It’s a curious old area, at the same time wild and not wild close to Gränbystaden, Uppsala’s out-of-town shopping mall (there is a Sara Stinas torg (square) at the mall but I don’t think she’d enjoy sipping a latte there).

I like the old gnarled trees and hummocky enclosures and the instructions not to drop fish in the pond as they will eat the salamander eggs. There are information placards about Elisabeth Christina, sadly not in prime condition after the winter, but also about other female botanists, Eva Ekeblad de la Gardie (1724-86) who was interested in potato cultivation and was the first female member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, elected in 1748. Elisabeth Christina was also in contact with the Academy, and wrote an article about the small flashes which Indian cress appears to produce (much later found to be an optical effect).

And then I see a grubby picture of Lady Anne Monson (1727-76), according to Wikipedia a great grandchild of the inveterate seed scatterer [my epithet] Charles II. The placards put up by the municipality inform us that Lady Anne Monson translated Linnaeus’s sexual system into English. Wikipedia’s take is more cautious – “It was claimed by her contemporary J.E. Smith that it was Lady Anne who assisted James Lee in translating Linnaeus’s Philosophica Botanica”. Then the plot thickens as Wikipedia mentions that “Later Lady Anne is mentioned by James Lee in her letters to Linnaeus” so we have a female James to factor in  while trying to steer the frail ship of science between the drive to find the lady on the one hand and the unthinking dismissal or belittling (or at times deliberate disguise) of women’s contributions on the other. Some time I must check these sources, during the next epidemic perhaps.

Lady Monson, whatever her translation skills, was undoubtedly a serious botanist, she later married a Colonel George Monson who was in the Indian army. She travelled out to Kolkata in 1774 via the Cape where she met another collaborator of Linnaeus, Carl Peter Thunberg and pursued her botanical interests there. There is a South African flowering shrub named after her Monsonia, one variant of which is called Monsonia Patersonii so perhaps this was a joint discovery. This may not have been her first journey to Bengal as her marriage was in 1757 (I shall try to check this). According to Wikipedia, she became a prominent member of Kolkata society but died already in 1776 so that she must have a had a rapid career in Calcutta society if it was her first trip (I read in Echoes from Old Calcutta that there was a gathering at Lady Monsons on 1 September 1775, three whist tables and two chess and that Lady Monson was a fine whist player). She died in 1776, her husband not long after. She is buried in Park St cemetery and Calcutta revisited tells us that Warren Hastings was among the pall bearers. The grave was renovated in 2005 and according to the write-up in a Kolkata paper a chorus of koels sang through the re-dedication ceremony (which I believe is a cuckoo-like bird). I must visit this grave next time I’m in town. I hunted for my book with locations of graves in Park St cemetery but I think it must be in our joint Indian library in Kolkata.

A satisfactory walk and I got home without getting soaked (spring and winter tussled today, blue sky to lift up the spirits then cool bleak cloud with spots of hail and rain).

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