Bertha Stoneman

Bertha Stoneman

If Bertha Stoneman were my biology teacher at school, maybe I would've considered choosing the subject for the final three years. In the opening chapter of Plants and their ways in South Africa, a 1906 textbook for school biology, her introduction ranges from the baking of bread to the Wonderboom in Pretoria, with a final encouragement regarding Latin names: ‘‘...the reader may skip any name in this book longer than Hermanuspetrusfontein.”

But it was not the Latin (non-existent in our school system anyway) that bothered me, but the endless dumb copying of sketches of the germinating bean and the germinating mealie, the leaf structure and the two types of root system. All always copied from a book. That wasn't Ms Stoneman's style.

Her style went more along the lines of this: ‘‘Every boy who makes willow whistles takes advantage of the active season of the cambium, in spring. Later in the season the cambium is not so active (for the whistle-making season is limited, ‘as every schoolboy knows’).” Her textbook gives a historical overview of the discovery of why plants generally don't self-pollinate and tells how she finally saw the elusive flower of the koekemakranka.

In her introduction she exhorts biology teachers to have window-boxes planted by students and to add a ‘simple, well-constructed apparatus’ to their classrooms every year. She suggests numerous simple experiments to demonstrate plant morphology and physiology, while casually referring to legendary figures in South African science, like Rudolf Marloth or Louisa Bolus (‘‘...in Dr. Hahn's laboratory it was showed that grains flourished in the absence of any trace of silica...”; Peter Daniel Hahn was professor of chemistry at the South African College, today the University of Cape Town where the chemistry building is named after him).

Bertha Stoneman joined Huguenot College, the only tertiary institution for women in South Africa, in Wellington, the Boland, straight from Cornell University, having completed a PhB (Bachelor of Philosophy) degree in 1894 and a Doctor of Science in 1896. The College had many American teachers, the first of whom was Abbie Park Ferguson, seated second from right in the staff photo below.

She remained at Huguenot College, teaching botany, zoology, psychology and logic until 1933, only returning home to the United States four times. She was made president of the college in 1928 and became founder president of the South African Federation of University Women in 1923. She died in 1943 and had requested that her ashes be taken back to the United States.

An early feminist, a ‘bluestocking’, she never married.

Instead, she led students like Olive Coates Palgrave and pioneer mycologist Ethel Doidge to careers in botany. She even refers to her former student's research in the text book: ‘‘Miss Doidge has found that a mould (Mucor) effects the change from starch to sugar...”. Bertha Stoneman is remembered in a plant laboratory bearing her name at the University of Pretoria and an annual bursary awarded to a female student in botany.

Cornell University received a few items relating to Bertha Stoneman from her niece, Rebecca Stoneman Harris, supplemented by additional papers from Miss Harris' estate in 1986. ‘‘It's an interesting little collection,” says Elaine Engst, director and university archivist. ‘‘She seems to have been a fascinating woman.”