Bertha Stoneman

The American Botanist at Huguenot College

April 30, 1943
Today is the anniversary of the death of the noted botanist who became president of Huguenot College in South Africa and founded of the South African Association of University Women, Bertha Stoneman.

Born on a farm near Jamestown, New York, the Stoneman family had many notable achievements. Bertha's aunt, Kate Stoneman, was the first woman admitted to the New York State bar. Another aunt became the first policewoman in Buffalo, and her uncle George Stoneman, a general in the American Civil War, became the 15th governor of California. (Ronald Reagan being the 33rd, and Arnold Schwarzenegger being the 38th.)

Bertha Stoneman completed her undergraduate and doctorate degrees in botany at Cornell University in 1894 and 1896, respectively. Bertha jumped at the chance to lead the botany department at Huguenot College, a women's college in Wellington, South Africa. More precisely, Huguenot College was the only woman's college on the African continent. Later Bertha would recall,

"It was the courtesy, culture and hospitality of certain Africans that held me... there."

The college called on Bertha to teach botany and zoology, mathematics, logic, ethics, and psychology.

Bertha's textbook, Plants and their Ways in South Africa (1906), an instant classic, was widely assigned as a textbook in South African schools for several decades.

Surrounded by the new and exciting flora of South Africa, Bertha set about building a herbarium for Huguenot. She either went out herself to collect specimens, or she sent others to add to the collection.

When talking to Americans during visits home, Bertha praised South African plant life, saying:

"South Africa provides 42 species of native asparagus. Why should it not be cultivated as a vegetable?

...There are fine citrus fruits, avocado, pears, figs, mangoes, and paw-paws...

You need not seek employment.

Employ yourself.

Come soon, and you will be warmly and courteously welcomed."

Bertha was a wonderfully engaging teacher, and Carolize Jansen wrote in Bertha on her blog,

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.”

Bertha was good at many endeavors. Bertha's Cornell Delta Gamma biography noted,

"She entered with enthusiasm into all phases of [college] life, seeming equally at home on the hockey-field, as captain of a team, or in dramatics, writing, and coaching plays... We... are not surprised to learn that she has written many a song for Huguenot College, including its "Alma Mater."

Thanks to Google, I was able to track down the lyrics to the song - although one word had a transcription failure. I edited the text as best I could.

[To the Tune—“ Sweet and Low."]

Joyfully, joyfully, ever of thee we'll sing,
Loyally, loyally, honor to thee we’ll bring :

“Earnest for truth" shall our life’s effort be.
Time shall unite us still closer to thee,

[Wisdom] from thee shall come.

Lend thy beams afar.
Shine, thou brilliant Star,

Shine. Thou our Queen, pure, serene.

Ever our hearts wilt cheer.
While with thee never we
Danger or care shall fear.

Knowing our sorrows, thou’ll help us to bear.
And widen rejoicing, our joys thou wilt share.

Thou, our noble Queen.

As we honor thee, we shall sing of thee.


Bertha was tremendously proud of her scholars. Among Bertha's more notable students was South African botanical illustrator, Olive Coates Palgrave (noted for her richly illustrated 1956 book Trees of Central Africa) and British born, South African mycologist and bacteriologist, Ethel Doidge.

Twenty-four years after arriving in South Africa, Bertha became president of Huguenot University College.

Bertha retired twelve years later.

Bertha requested that her ashes be returned to the United States upon her death.

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Bertha Stoneman
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