The first Australian palynologist: Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) and her scientific work

Riding, James B. ORCID:; Dettmann, Mary E.. 2014 The first Australian palynologist: Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) and her scientific work. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, 38 (1). 97-129.

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Isabel Clifton Cookson (1893–1973) of Melbourne, Australia, was one of that country’s first professional woman scientists. She is remembered as one of the most eminent palaeontologists of the twentieth century and had a distinguished research career of 58 years, authoring or co-authoring 93 scientific publications. Isabel worked with great distinction on modern and fossil plants, and pioneered palynology in Australia. She was a consumate taxonomist and described, or jointly described, a prodigious total of 110 genera, 557 species and 32 subspecific taxa of palynomorphs and plants. Cookson was a trained biologist and initially worked as a botanist during the 1920s. At the same time she became interested in fossil plants and then, Mesozoic–Cenozoic terrestrial (1940s–1950s) and aquatic (1950s–1970s) palynomorphs. Cookson’s research into the late Silurian–Early Devonian plants of Australia and Europe, particularly the Baragwanathia flora, between the 1920s and the 1940s was highly influential in the field of early plant evolution. The fossil plant genus Cooksonia was named for Isabel in 1937 by her principal mentor in palaeobotany, Professor William H. Lang. From the 1940s Cookson focussed on Cenozoic floras and, with her students, elucidated floral affinities by comparative analyses of micromorphology, anatomy and in situ pollen/spores between fossil and extant taxa. This led to an interest in pre-Quaternary and Quaternary terrestrial pollen and spores; hence Isabel was the first palynologist in Australia. Her work on Paleogene and Neogene pollen and spores during the 1940s and 1950s provided incontrovertible evidence of the former widespread distribution of many important elements of Southern Hemisphere floras. During the early 1950s, while approaching her 60th year, Isabel turned her attention to marine palynomorphs. She worked with great distinction with Georges Deflandre and Alfred Eisenack, and also as a sole author, on acritarchs, dinoflagellate cysts and prasinophytes from the Jurassic to Quaternary of Australia and Papua New Guinea. She also co-authored papers on aquatic palynomorphs with Lucy M. Cranwell, Norman F. Hughes and Svein B. Manum. Isabel Cookson laid out the taxonomic basis for the study of Australasian Mesozoic and Cenozoic marine palynofloras by establishing, or jointly establishing, 76 genera and 386 species of marine microplankton. Her studies throughout her career, although especially in marine palynology, concentrated largely on taxonomy. However, she was one of the first palynologists to demonstrate the utility of dinoflagellate cysts for relative age dating and correlation in geological exploration.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
ISSN: 0311-5518
Date made live: 16 Sep 2013 11:01 +0 (UTC)

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