Georgiana Molloy – scientific collector

Georgiana Molloy 1805 – 1843

The late 1800s saw a growing interest among more educated Australians in the natural environment, its peculiarities and beauties, and its contribution to science.

The ways that men and women were able to explore their scientific interests in the 1800s were different.  In line with the male/female public/private divide, men tended to become part of scientific societies, and to channel their interests into collegial discussions and the publication of learned papers.  Women tended to focus on the artistic and literary values of this new strange environment, and in some cases to provide support to male scientists of note.

Georgiana married Captain John Molloy at the age of 24 and emigrated with him from Cumberland, England to Western Australia.  They lived first at Augusta in Western Australia, where their pioneering work was extremely difficult – the area was very heavily timbered, and the efforts needed to clear timber were overwhelming.

Then in 1839 the Molloys moved to Vasse River, WA.  Here Georgiana’s workload was lessened –  although she still had many responsibilities on the property.   She did have more time to indulge her interests, one of which was flower collecting, and she became adept at collecting, mounting and displaying indigenous plants in a hortus siccus – a dried flower herbarium.

Georgiana was also an early adopter of the benefits of gardening, for its spiritual benefits, and as a way of teaching its practitioners – especially children – about nature.

Georgiana was aided in her trips into the bush by Aboriginal guides. This was at a time when colonists in Western Australia considered the original inhabitants to be savages, and massacres of Aboriginal people, some involving her husband, were occurring in the immediate vicinity.

Georgiana’s serious scientific collecting work was initiated by Captain James Mangles, an amateur botanist and collector who had visited Western Australia from England in 1831, and who in 1836 contacted Georgiana and asked her to collect botanical specimens for him.

Her collections were used to provide more information to botanists in England about the flora of Western Australia, and her seeds led to the propagation of Australian plants in England and elsewhere. Her collecting methods were more precise than some of the male collectors and her packaging of samples was fastidious, which led to her samples arriving in Europe in the freshest possible condition.

Before her death at the age of 38, in addition to her botanical and pioneering endeavours, Georgiana had given birth to six children, two of whom died in infancy.

Georgiana’s relationship with Captain Mangles is of particular interest, and their letters to eachother survive.  She delighted in their correspondence, which went into much greater levels of intimacy than might be expected.   In the early days of their geographically distant relationship, for example, she wrote to him in very personal terms about the accidental and heartbreaking death of her son.

Georgiana also wrote extensively of the beauty she saw around her in the natural environment, about how important it was to her and her family to have a reason to explore the bush, and how eager she was to perform well in her collecting duties.  She thanked Captain Mangles for providing her with the opportunity to do more than admire the natural environment and to make a contribution to the development of scientific knowledge.

She developed a very strong attachment to Captain Mangles, even though she never met him.  She wrote in very clear terms about the importance of their common interests and enthusiasm – ‘I am sincere when I say, I never met with any one who so perfectly called forth and could sympathize with me in my prevailing passion for Flowers.’ Her husband and other family members felt, she said, that this passion was amusing, and indulged her rather than understood her and her husband sometimes tired of her not completing her domestic duties.  Captain Mangles was the only person in her life who realized and supported her passion for botany as being of central importance in her life.

Picture from the website of the Georgiana Molloy Anglican School

Comments welcome.  I’m very happy to be corrected on anything above.

I’d be very interested in any information or stories about Georgiana which contribute to our thoughts on women and leadership.

References and further reading

William J. Lines. 1994. An all consuming passion:  Origins, modernity and the Australian life of Georgiana Molloy. St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin

A more modern scientific collector, Mary Tindale, died very recently after a career spanning the 20th century.  Her eulogy can be found at

About Jane Elix

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1 Response to Georgiana Molloy – scientific collector

  1. Libby says:

    What I love about Lines’ biography of Georgiana is the way in which her engagement with the Australian environment and its wildflowers transform her outlook. She comes across as a narrow, class-bound young English woman on her journey to Western Australia but the vicissitudes of married life and motherhood on a colonial frontier combined with the purpose and meaning of her natural history collecting create a warmer image of a mature woman. Yet she was only in her 30s when she dies, I think, of childbirth complications.

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