Scannell, Mary J. P. ('Maura') (1924–2011), botanist, was born on 18 March 1924 in Cork city, one of seven children (five daughters and two sons) of Patrick Scannell, a carrier and contractor, and his wife Margaret (née Murnane). The family was well off, living in a villa on the South Douglas Road. From an early age the Scannell children were keen horseriders. Maura (as she was usually known) and her brother Anthony won prizes at gymkhanas and shows all round the country, and even gave displays of their skills as showjumpers. Anthony went on to have a successful career as an amateur jockey, riding in the Aintree Grand National in 1949. After successfully competing in the 1944 Dublin horse show, the family were struck by tragedy as they returned to Cork by train. At Thurles their horse-box went on fire, and Maura's younger sister, 12-year-old Rita, was killed.
Maura studied botany and zoology in UCC under Professor Louis Renouf (qv), graduating B.Sc. and taking an H.Dip.Ed. Shortly after graduating, she took up a post in 1949 as assistant keeper of the natural history division of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Dublin. Her pioneering studies of the historical and cultural relevance of plants, especially in Ireland, developed alongside more conventional botanical concerns, as she researched and published over 200 papers. She was an early proponent of the use of newly developed scientific techniques of identifying plant material, whether as charcoal, timber, seeds or fibres, in museum collections and from archaeological digs, including the Wood Quay viking site in Dublin. Scannell identified the kinds of wood involved in the making of ancient Irish harps in the NMI. Other topics she researched included the use of dye plants in Ireland, and the distribution of wild flowers in suburban Dublin, linked to long-forgotten wetland and lost rivers.
Scannell was an avid collector of plants on field trips, often in her leisure time, and was one of the two official recorders of the flora of Co. Cork. She assisted Evelyn Booth to complete her Flora of County Carlow (1979), the first county flora published by a woman, and produced a Flora of Connemara and the Burren (1983), jointly with David A. Webb (qv). Her book articles included chapters in Stars, shells and bluebells (1997), edited by Mary Mulvihill, on Matilda Knowles (qv) and Evelyn Booth.
When it was decided in 1970 that the herbarium at the NMI should be transferred to the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, Scannell and a colleague, Donal Synott, planned the move; Scannell's persistence enabled the huge collections to be transferred safely and in totality. As keeper of the herbarium, she developed the collections and the reputation of the Botanic Gardens as a centre of taxonomic expertise, often utilising the living plants in the gardens as reference material. Scannell's contributions of specimens outnumber almost any other individual collector's in the herbarium. She recognised the importance of a collection of botanical specimens once owned by Thomas Molyneux (qv), and arranged its purchase for the herbarium from Moore Abbey in Monasterevin, Co. Kildare.
Maura Scannell generated a huge correspondence with researchers worldwide, answering queries on a myriad of historical and botanical subjects; colleagues believed that her generosity in assisting others adversely affected her own publication record. She was credited with inspiring many youngsters with a love of her subject, and from the 1960s was enthusiastically involved as a judge of botany projects with the annual Irish Young Scientists exhibition in the RDS. An active member of the Irish regional committee of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (1963–94), she was made an honorary member of the society in 1995.
Scannell's retirement in 1989 scarcely changed the level of her input to botanical knowledge and to the Botanic Gardens' herbarium. She continued to collect plants and to answer queries. In the last year of her life, she sorted her files and deposited a large amount of research material, correspondence, specimens and ephemera in the archives of the Botanic Gardens. In 2008 she was awarded the National Botanic Gardens medal for her contributions to Irish botany. Also in that year, a whitebeam tree found in Killarney National Park was confirmed as a new species and named Sorbus scannelliana in her honour. She never married (claiming that plants took up all her time), but had an enduring influence on her seven nieces and nephews, encouraging them to develop their creative talents; two became artists and one a garden designer. A woman of sparkling conversation and boundless energy, always impeccably dressed, she had numerous interests outside of her profession, such as painting, sewing, crocheting, embroidering and sculpting. She was involved in Amnesty International, and was deeply concerned about issues such as women's rights, domestic violence and homelessness.
She died on 1 November 2011 in Cork University Hospital, and was buried in the cemetery adjoining the Roman catholic church of St Colman, Cloyne, Co. Cork.