health & science

The two Lucys: Kiwi botanists in their brothers’ shorts

Two trailblazing women, both called Lucy, explored some of New Zealand's most remote places in the name of botanical knowledge. Farah Hancock tells their stories.

Women were not allowed to serve on juries, there were no female constabulary and sports attire for women meant skirts. Ladies shorts were hard to come by.

It was out of 1930s depression-gripped New Zealand that Lucy Cranwell and Lucy Moore established their careers. They were friends, botanists and trailblazers.

Maureen Young, who grew up next door to Moore's family and referred to Moore as "Aunty Lucy", described the two women: “What girls they were. They were so full of adventure and doing things girls didn’t do. They just despised girls who went to tennis parties and flirted with boys.

“Lucy Cranwell wouldn't go to a dance because the girls were expected to sit around the edge seats around the hall and wait until a boy came to ask them for a dance. She wanted to grab life by the neck. She didn't want to sit there and wait for a boy to come and ask her to dance.”

The two Lucys, as they were known, did grab life by the neck. They delved into some of the most remote and rugged parts of the country in search of botanical knowledge and published their findings in many papers and books.

Lucy Cranwell became Auckland Museum’s botany curator for many years and went on to become an expert on fossil pollen, writing numerous papers on the subject.

Lucy Moore worked for 40 years at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) and wrote papers on seaweed, tussock-lands and flowering plants.

Their work has been recognised over the years with a raft of awards and honours.  After their deaths, their legacy is kept alive with plants that bear their names. 

The expeditions

In 1929 Moore described herself and Cranwell as botany graduates without jobs, but with a £40 scholarship.

The two Lucys, who had become friends during their studies at the University of Auckland, decided to use the £40 to investigate the plants at Moehau Mountain, at the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. Over five years they climbed the 892-metre mountain 10 times.

Skirts were unsuitable for scrambling up mountains and “bashing” through bush, so the two Lucys borrowed their brothers’ cast-off, usually threadbare shorts.

In a speech Moore made in 1985 about Cranwell's career she recalled an incident with Cranwell’s hand-me-downs: “We were lightly clad, without packs and LMC [Cranwell] wore elderly football shorts discarded by her brother. A snag of rock or twig produced a sizeable three-cornered tear.”

Moore said she borrowed a needle and thread and and while Cranwell was wearing the shorts, “sewed her back to respectability – running repairs in situ, so to speak”.

Lucy Moore (left) and Lucy Cranwell (right) climbing Mt Maungapōhatu, 1932.
Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum/Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Moore described getting to the mountain as an undertaking, which involved a boat journey, a car trip and long walks often laden with gear or plant samples.

“I remember returning one night when the [boat] cargo included several sacks of live crayfish for the Auckland market. Several large ones, gifts for the crew, roamed free on the deck and were a hazard for us moving about in the dark.”

Trips to other parts of the country involved similarly unusual travel experiences. Cranwell’s cousin’s hoodless Dodge took them as far as his fishing spot in Te Urewera. From there they hitched a ride and then continued on foot to climb Mt Maungapōhatu. 

A trip to the King Country was made on the back platform of a railway carriage escorted by a Te Kūiti police sergeant, and “looking as disreputable as any pair of prisoners”.

When the railway tracks ended they rode on a horse-drawn trolley on wooden rails to a mill “and into untouched parts of a podocarp forest - a never-to-be-forgotten sight, the like of which will probably not ever be seen again”.

Once in the bush and on foot the two Lucys had few creature comforts. They did not have tents and their sleeping bags, used even in frosty conditions, were unlined canvas. On one occasion they slept inside an old rātā tree on Mount Pirongia.

One trip was made to Mount Torlesse in the South Island, where they hoped to collect a “vegetable sheep” for the Auckland museum. From a distance the cushion plants, with their grey rounded shape look like sheep dotted among alpine rocks. 

The vegetable sheep, collected in 1930 has browned with age.
It's currently in storage at the Auckland Museum. Photo: AK 209589, CC BY

Professor Arnold Wall, the chair of English at Canterbury University College, a keen naturalist who took a liking to the women, often accompanied them on their excursions. He penned poems about their escapades including the collection of the vegetable sheep. This poem, published in The Press newspaper, said the expedition happened during a fierce nor’wester where the rocks were “quivering like jellies” and the party were, at times, unable to stand.

“The wanted plants were growing in the most exposed locality,

We laboured sore an hour or more and courted dire fatality,

Before the monster yielded to our picking and our harrying;

We laid his carcase on the bier to start the dreadful carrying.”

The “carcase” Wall described in the verse is the 61kg vegetable sheep. A stretcher was made for the specimen and the two Lucys lugged it down the mountain.

While Wall and botanist Leonard Cockayne were steadfast fans of the two Lucys, not all men were as supportive.

An expedition to the Three Kings Islands organised by the Auckland Museum was a men-only affair. Dubbed The Will Watch, the invitees were from various scientific fields. Despite Cranwell holding a position at the museum at the time, there was no chance either she or Moore would be permitted to join.

Cranwell responded by organising a women’s-only trip to the Hen and Chicken Islands, where she, Moore and two other female botanists enjoyed a week exploring.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Gaining a foothold in what was a man’s world was sometimes difficult for the women, particularly Moore. Young described some of the hurdles “Aunty Lucy” faced in securing employment in botany:

“The only job she could get was working as a demonstrator for Professor McGregor. She worked for him for eight years and she loathed him. He took great pleasure in making women cry. Any girl that crossed his path, he would have them in tears. Lucy was absolutely determined that she would never cry, so she never did.”

Associate Professor W.R. McGregor, who was the head of Zoology at Auckland University, has been described by others as ruling with a iron rod and being “essentially insecure”.

During her time there she applied unsuccessfully for other roles. An application for a dream job at Victoria University was rejected. The letter she received said the university had found a “better man” for the role.

Other roles simply weren’t open to women, according to Young.

“The DSIR wouldn't employee women scientists, but a young girl called Ruth Mason graduated with a degree in botany and her father was a Member of Parliament. She wanted a job with the DSIR, so her father pulled strings and got her a job. From then on, the DSIR couldn't refuse to employ women and that's when Lucy got her job there in 1938.”

Moore stayed with the DSIR until her retirement in 1971. Ruth Mason, who unwittingly opened the door for Moore, went on to become another respected New Zealand botanist.

Lucy Moore at the DSIR.

Cranwell had an easier time finding employment. She gained a role as Auckland Museum’s botany curator at just 21 years old. Cranwell’s first job was to transport and organise the former curator and museum director Cheeseman’s herbarium which contained 21,000 specimens in the new museum building.

Moore recalled other duties the 21-year-old was faced with.

“Dozens of glass cases yawned empty awaiting exhibits. Public relations were very important as the museum depended largely on voluntary contributions from local bodies and private donors for funds and materials. The staff was very small and the half dozen professionals were expected to carry out field work and to produce papers for the burgeoning museum records.”

Cranwell began writing regular articles in the Auckland Star, many focused on the Cheeseman Memorial Spring Native Flower Show which she helped organise.

Huge amounts of flowers would be displayed at the annual shows. An Auckland Star article describes the event in 1937 when 10,449 visitors attended the show: "Throughout the afternoon a large crowd of citizens thronged the three halls and admired the beauty of the exhibits, and commented on the obvious care which had been expended on the arrangement and labelling of the specimens."

Ewen Cameron, the museum's current botany curator, speaks of Cranwell’s curation efforts with respect.

“She’s set the scene as one of the early curators here about what can be achieved by a museum curator. This is before Facebook and everything else. She was out there communicating with the public right from day one with articles in the paper.”

Plants in the fight against the enemy

Wartime saw the women’s skills used in unusual ways.

Moore helped create agar, a substance important in medical research. Japan had previously been supplying New Zealand but with the hostilities this supply ended. Moore looked to local seaweed to provide an alternative.

Accustomed to mobilising people in far-flung locations to send botanical samples to her, she encouraged Māori school children on the East Coast to help her collect seaweed.

“She was a great one for involving people. Sometimes you get scientists to who think that ordinary people are ignorant or not beneath their notice, but Lucy was never like that,” said Young.

Instructions on preparing toddy from Food is Where You Find It.

Cranwell put her communication skills to use helping to pen a survival handbook. Food is Where You Find It was intended to be a guide for pilots or castaways stranded in Western Pacific. It was issued to American and British troops as far north as Burma.

The book includes items such as jackfruit, yams, pigweed and papaya. The descriptions and instructions given for how each item could be eaten, and what items were poisonous were clear, although some of the terms used would raise eyebrows today.

A section on volcanic islands reads: “Baling out on a peaked volcanic island, its summit wet with low mossy forest and its flanks smothered with tall timber, presents new problems. Usually the natives will spot you before you crash through the forest roof, If so they will feed you and help you on … Lower down there will be the coconut to sustain you, so you have little to worry about unless the Japs have been around.”

The odd snippet of humour is interspersed in the information. A page on durian states they are a Malayan delicacy, liked by white people who are used to the smell of “old cheese and onions, flavoured with turpentine”. It’s suggested that attempting to sleep under a durian tree is folly, due to the risk of falling fruit and the smell.

The book was reprinted four times during the war, and was a best-seller for the museum with 23,000 copies sold by the fourth edition.

A legacy of friendship, generosity and love

Cranwell married a member of the American Airforce and in 1944 moved to the United States, where she continued her work with pollens.

The friendship with Moore endured. The two shared letters and reunited in a 1963 trip touring the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert. Moore wrote: "Then, from the comfort of a chauffeur-driven car we recalled the times and the friends of our rucksack botany days. We remembered high adventures, exciting discoveries, lovely places, amusing incidents and meetings with famous men and women."

Cranwell returned at times to New Zealand and her love of the landscape can be clearly seen in a revised version of her book, The Botany of Auckland. Originally published in 1936, it was reissued in 1979 with up-to-date information.

In the 1979 version she lamented changes made to Auckland. On Grafton Gully she wrote: “By 1966 only a small area of natives, mixed with introduced trees, remained near the old cemetery. All the rest had been stripped naked and was soon clothed with concrete to give access to the middle of the city. The area now looks as though some giant had played on it a savage, if sophisticated trick.”

Mention was made of the damage wreaked by possums.

"At first foresters held the innocent view that opossums would snuggle down in the trees during the day and be content to sally forth after dark to eat grasses ... Groves of pōhutukawa have died along the coast where opossums have been most active."

Cranwell also gave a generous donation to establish a grant which is still administered today by the Auckland Botanical Society. Each year The Lucy Cranwell Student Grant gives $2500 to a student project involved with flora and vegetation.

Moore, who grew up in a poor family, was also unstintingly generous with others, if not herself.

Young said Moore never lost the habit of frugality. She never owned a car and didn’t own a refrigerator until well into her retirement.

“When she died I helped clean up some of the stuff ... If you unpick a seam, you pull out the thread and it's all wrinkled from being sewn. She had a plastic bag full of this wrinkly thread. She obviously was not going to throw it away but would be reusing it rather than buying a new reel of cotton.”

Despite her frugality she gave to friends and family. Young said she donated all her share of the earnings from the Oxford Book of New Zealand Plants to the artist who worked on it.

Moore’s niece (not Young), who was going through a marriage split also benefitted from her generosity. Moore helped her with money to buy a house on the proviso that instead of refunding it, she take on the responsibility of winding Moore’s affairs up when she died.

Not all Moore's gifts came with attached strings, Young said.

“When she died in 1987, she left all her money to the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust. Half a million dollars, which in 1987 is lot of money. She didn't give them any instructions what to do with it. She just thought they were doing good work and left the money to them.”

Young summed the two Lucys up:

“They were absolute trailblazers and they had to fight their way to get where they got.

“They were two amazing ladies, way ahead of their time.”

The “two Lucys” en route to the 6th International Plant Congress in Amsterdam. 
Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum/Tāmaki Paenga Hira

An excerpt from one of Professor Arnold Wall’s poems, published in the Auckland Star, November 1 1930.

The heavens lifted up their gates and opened their sluices,

When I went forth to wander with an Olive and two Lucies;

Rain-laden westerlies blew fierce and roared among the treeses,

A lot they cared, these Amazons, these little Herculeses!

For these were heroines of fame, not skilled in arts cosmetic,

Not fussy about hygiene or fads or dietetic,

While other girls devote their days to tennis, tea and scandal,

They brave the pigs and cattle round the steeps of Coromandel.

They’ve couched upon the cold, cold ground, and in the forest bedded,

In frost and fog and sleet and snow, in places drear and dreaded;

And as for frills and furbelows, I’m sure they had not got any,

But they instead are deeply read in the ‘ologies and botany.

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