MARGARET LEVYNS: THE MAKING OF A SOUTH AFRICAN BOTANIST

This essay touches on the life and contribution of Margaret Levyns (1890-1975), a renowned South African botanist who, in 1933, was the first woman to obtain a D.Sc degree at the University of Cape Town. Also importantly, she was the first – and, to date, only – female President of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1962/1963.

Margaret Michell studying a specimen collected in the field, Montagu, Cape Province, 1922

Margaret Michell studying a specimen collected in the field, Montagu, Cape Province, 1922

Margaret Rutherford Bryan Michell was born in Sea Point, Cape Town. At that time wild flowers were abundant both in her parents’ property and in the surrounding veld. Even as a small child Margaret took great delight in observing them. Shy, lacking self-confidence and retiring – personality traits she was to retain lifelong – her schooldays were frequently interrupted by bouts of serious illness. One of her school teachers told Margaret that she would never make a botanist. The young girl went along with this assessment, having been bored by school botany, interpreted by the teacher as lack of interest. Margaret records only one field excursion during this time and, very disappointingly for the clever and enquiring child, the teacher did not know the names of the plants they encountered.

While she was at high school Margaret’s father became extremely ill and the family struggled financially. Margaret’s winning not one but two bursaries to study for a B.A. at the South African College (SAC) was insufficient to cover her costs. Reluctantly, because there was a need to become self-supporting, Margaret enrolled at the teacher’s training college. She hated the uninspiring atmosphere and the rote learning that was required. A relative and two family friends came to the rescue of this unhappy teacher-in-training with offers to supplement her bursaries. Thus, in 1908, Margaret became a student at the SAC to obtain her degree through the University of the Cape of Good Hope. Among other subjects, she studied mathematics, botany, geology, chemistry and English. Then the SAC had no library, but students had the use of the private library of Botany Professor Harold Pearson who encouraged Margaret’s interest in genetics. He was an inspiring teacher, taking his class into the field every Saturday and sharing his wealth of knowledge with them. Margaret obtained the class prize in Botany and, so pleased was she with this achievement, that she decided to continue botany into her second year and third years.

At that time coveted scholarships from the University of the Cape of Good Hope to study further in Britain hinged on success in an Honours degree which might be taken concurrently with the third year of the first degree, naturally making for an extremely heavy final academic year. Only one scholarship was awarded per discipline. Mathematics having been Margaret’s best subject, she switched her Honours discipline from botany to mathematics, and also, generously, so as to allow one of her fellow-students to go for the botany scholarship. However, she entered extremely fierce competition in her choice of mathematics. It was her ill fortune to have as her rival that year J.H. Hofmeyr, one of the most brilliant people South Africa has ever produced. Although he had never previously studied mathematics (he was a Classics scholar), within just a few weeks he was well ahead of Margaret Michell. Although Margaret persevered for a while, her health broke down under the strain and she was obliged to abandon the demands of mathematics and thus her Honours degree. However, the following year, the College extended her original scholarship and she returned to Botany completing her Honours degree in this subject. This was a year that she thoroughly enjoyed, particularly the opportunities for more excursions to learn about the Cape flora in situ. Her excellent examination results confirmed her growing passion for botany. Again, she gained two scholarships and in September 1912 she set off for Newnham College, Cambridge, to study under Professor A.C. Seward, F.R.S. She loved Cambridge and revelled in many and regular all-day botanical expeditions into the countryside.

In 1914 Margaret was persuaded by Pearson to apply for the newly established Croll research scholarship and this she successfully secured. Having returned to England from her brief visit to South Africa in order to make her application, war intervened. Pearson suggested that she remain in England to work on plant breeding with William Bateson, the geneticist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, and she was also employed in a munitions factory. In November 1916 Margaret was able to take up her research position in Cape Town and just a few days later Pearson died suddenly. For two years until Professor David Thoday was appointed, Margaret and two other junior female colleagues ran the Department, the most senior, Edith Stephens, acting as Head.

Such was the background and context to Levyns’s education and her incorporation into the Botany Department at UCT. She remained a dedicated staff member until her compulsory retirement in 1947 at the age of 55.

Disa graminifolia, painted by Dorothy Barclay (Levyns, 1929)

Disa graminifolia, painted by Dorothy Barclay (Levyns, 1929)

Her contribution greatly assisted in the Botany Department’s evolution towards growing excellence and she personally excelled in both research and teaching. After 30 years as a Senior Lecturer, she had never been promoted further, a matter of regret to her, and one which led to many women of her time being dispirited in their academic careers and leaving them prematurely. After Levyns retired, she counted herself fortunate that she was able to continue her association with UCT as an Honorary Reader in Plant Taxonomy (with the help of a CSIR bursary) and assisted with teaching if a member of staff were away. In 1923 she had married John E.P. Levyns, later to become Assistant Provincial Secretary of the Cape Province, and despite his urging her to do otherwise, she insisted on her later work being published under her married name. When she married she asked UCT to alter her surname and did not emphasise that the reason for doing so was that she had married. She did not want to lose her job and she and her husband were in need of her salary. Head of Department Professor R.S. Adamson had suggested this course of action, and told her that, rather than offer her resignation, she should wait for the university to demand it. This never occurred. Other women followed her example, and thus was a tradition broken.

Levyns, retiring and humble, was also collegial, helpful, and thorough – she was never one for quick and superficial work. Unlike many scientists, she never sought the limelight. In a recently published article A.C. Brown sounds almost censorious in describing her as follows: ‘Although I knew her quite well in her later years, I know of not a single amusing story about her; she was not an eccentric and did not become absent-minded but showed undiminished vigour and dedication to her work until the very end of her life …’ (Brown, 2014).

Given her grounding in the Cape, its flora and its educational institutions, it is not surprising that Levyns’s botanical work concerned Cape vegetation. From the very early period of European interest in southern Africa, the Cape flora had entranced those interested in natural history. The earliest published book to bear the title Flora Capensis was a nineteen-page publication which appeared in 1759. Written by Linnaeus, this was however the work of Carl Wannman, one of his students. In 1767 Petrus Bergius published the more expansive Descriptiones Plantarum ex Capite Bonae Spei. Many later works were to bear this or similar titles. Perhaps the most important work authored by Margaret Levyns was A Guide to the Flora of the Cape Peninsula that first appeared in 1929, and was fully revised in 1966 (without colour plates). Hers was the first accessible scientific textbook for students studying botany in and of the Cape and one, moreover, which was in a format and size that could easily be consulted in the field. Clearly laid out and accompanied by 199 illustrations by herself and E. McCullough, there were comprehensive keys to the genera and a fully illustrated glossary. The three colour plates – of Disa uniflora, Nerine sarniensis and Disa graminifolia – were painted by Dorothy Barclay, niece of the botanical artist Ethel Dixie.

Levyns’s 1933 D.Sc. revised the Cape genera Lobostemon and Echiostachis. This was important taxonomic research and Margaret proved to be a prolific scientific author, straddling both field and laboratory. In all, she wrote eight monographs, 25 taxonomic papers, four papers on the effects of veld fire, 24 other papers on aspects of botany (including seaweeds), three books (one a revised version of another) and contributed greatly to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. She was also a major collaborator with Adamson and Salter in the Flora of the Cape Peninsula (1950). Academic honours recognised Levyns’s contribution: she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and was its President in 1962; she was also President of Section B of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science 1952/53, and winner of the South Africa Medal in 1958.

Disa graminifolia, painted by Dorothy Barclay (Levyns, 1929)

Disa graminifolia, painted by Dorothy Barclay (Levyns, 1929)

Together with her extremely supportive and botanically knowledgeable husband, Levyns travelled widely and regularly in the south-western Cape throughout her career and well into retirement. Often with students but mostly alone, they camped out in the veld, hiked long distances, climbed many koppies and mountains, and became familiar with almost every plant in the region. A number of newly discovered plants were named after her. After her husband’s retirement in 1958 the couple motored extensively in Australia as Margaret wished to see for herself the Gondwana connections between the Australian and the southern Africa floras. This issue was of considerable interest to her. In 1952, when she gave presidential address to the Botanical Sciences Section of the S2A3, she said ‘The sad picture of the Cape flora being slowly but surely pushed off the African continent by the aggressive tactics of the newer and more drought-resistant floras pushing down on it from the north is far from accurate.’ She argued that they were quite capable of holding their own, providing that humans did not interfere. However, more study was required and in this respect she advocated that more botanical sanctuaries ought to be established (Lighton 1960:109). ‘Migrations and origins of the Cape Flora’ was the topic of her Royal Society Presidential Address. Late in her life she wrote nine articles called ‘Reminiscences – Miscellaneous’discovered in a folder after her death. Her husband edited and combined these with the UCT Botany Department’s privately published A Botanist’s Memoirs (Levyns 1968), and the book Insnar’d with Flow’rs appeared in 1977.

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Adamson, R.S. and Salter, T.M., Flora of the Cape Peninsula. Cape Town, 1950.
Bergius, Petrus Jonas, Descriptiones Plantarum ex Capite Bonae Spei. Stockholmiae, 1767.
Brown, A.C., ‘Some Royal but unmemoired Fellows’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 2014. DOI 10.1080/0035919X.2014.882429
Levyns, M.R.B., 1977. Insnar’d with Flow’rs: The Memoirs of a Great South African Botanist (ed. J.E.P. Levyns). Cape Town, 1977.
Levyns, M.R., A Guide to the Flora of the Cape Peninsula, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Juta & Co, 1929. Rev. 1966.
Linnaei, Caroli, Flora Capensis. Upsaliae, 1759.
Lighton, Conrad, Cape Floral Kingdom.  Cape Town, 1960.

I would like to thank the staff of The Brenthurst Library for allowing me access to its rich collection of Africana botanical material that I consulted in writing this essay.