Part 1 of our blog on the contribution of Irish women to the natural sciences in nineteenth-century Ireland focused on the lives and careers of Ellen Hutchins, Katherine Sophia Kane and Mary Ball. In Part 2, Niav Gallagher looks at Maud Delap and Annie Massy, whose scientific work similarly deserves greater recognition.
Born in 1866, Maud Delap’s four brothers were educated for good careers while she was homeschooled on Valencia Island. Her father had a keen interest in natural history, and this undoubtedly fostered a love of all things marine in Delap. From an early age she and her sisters collected plants and animals from the shore and, following her father’s habit, Delap began writing and sending specimens to the Natural History Museum in London. When Valencia was chosen as a suitable site for a detailed marine survey in 1895–6, Delap and her sister Constance took an active part. After the departure of the scientists the sisters continued the survey until 1898, taking sea temperatures and collecting plankton by tow-net from an open boat, which they rowed themselves; the preserved specimens were sent to London, as well as detailed drawings and notes. Delap was the first person to successfully breed jellyfish in captivity and published several scientific papers. As a result of her work she was offered a post with the marine biological station in Plymouth, but her father's reaction was ‘No daughter of mine will leave home except as a married woman’. She remained on the island until her death in 1953.
Marine biologist and ornithologist Annie Massy was born perhaps a year after Maud Delap. Similarly, she was educated at home where her interest in marine life probably developed during time spent on Velvet strand in north County Dublin, a popular hunting ground for shell collectors. In 1901 she began working in a temporary capacity for the fisheries division of the new Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (she never achieved a permanent position but remained with the fisheries division until her death). Thus began her career as an expert on marine molluscs as she worked her way through the varied collections from around the coast of Ireland.
In 1907, aged forty, Massy published her first scientific paper on cephalopods found in deep water off the west coast, three species of which were new to science, and over the next seven years she produced substantial publications on many marine groups, the result of years of painstaking taxonomic work. Her international reputation grew and she worked on material from the Indian Museum (published 1916) and on collections returned from major exploratory voyages: the British Antarctic expedition on the Terra Nova (1910), the South African trawler SS Pieter Faure (1923) and the Discovery expedition to Antarctica (1931). A keen ornithologist, in 1904 Massy was one of the founders of the Irish Society for the Protection of Birds (subsequently Irish Wildbird Conservancy, later Birdwatch Ireland). In 1926, when the society was on the verge of dissolution, she took over as honorary secretary and helped revive the organisation. This culminated in the wild birds protection act of 1930. Three days before her death in 1931 she resigned from the Irish Society for the Protection of Birds, ending her letter with the words ‘The shearwaters are great company to me at night, and the ravens by day’.
Together with Ellen Hutchins, Katherine Sophia Kane and Mary Ball, Maud Delap and Annie Massy constituted the first wave of a new era for women in the sciences. Despite their lack of access to formal education – either in school or in a university – their passion, intellect and ability enabled them to transcend the limits placed on them by society. Theirs was the rising tide that lifted the boats of future generations.