The Modest Model Botanist
Today we celebrate the birthday of a South African who had many botanical triumphs; Botanist Elsie Elizabeth Esterhuysen born April 11, 1912.
She’s been described as "the most outstanding collector ever of South African Flora", collecting 36,000 herbarium species.
A botanist at the Bolus Herbarium in Cape Town, Elsie was beyond humble. She would never publish the results of her work under her own name. There are 56 species and two genera named after her. The saying, "if you want to be immortal collect good herbarium specimens” is certainly reflected in Elsie Esterhuysen’s botanical legacy.
After Elsie died, over 200 people gathered at her memorial gathering - which featured three tributes from her botanical family.
Botanist John Rourke recalled,
"Elsie returned to Cape Town in 1938. It was here that her real career began when she joined the Bolus Herbarium (Figure 2) under another formidable woman. Dr Louisa Bolus. […] It’s an astonishing fact that for the first 18 years of her employment she received no proper salary and was paid out of petty cash at a rate not much better than a laborer.
She did not collect randomly; Elsie was above all an intelligent collector, seeking range extensions, local variants, or even new species, filling voids in the Bolus Herbarium’s records, often returning months later to collect seeds or fruits that were of diagnostic importance. […] Always self deprecating, one of her favorite comments was ‘I’m only filling in gaps’.”
Botanist Peter Linder said,
“She was what I thought a botanist was supposed to be. She was in the mountains every weekend, and came back with big black plastic bags full of plants, that she sorted and passed to Gert Syster to press. She was the one person who could put names on plants that defeated my attempts. And she had little time for academic niceties—for her the important things were plants in the mountains, their welfare, their relationships. She was immersed in plants and mountains.”
"Elsie taught me that each species has an essence, a character—that it liked some habitats but not others and that it flowered at a particular time. She was curious about the plants, not because they informed her about some theory or other, but she was interested in the plants themselves—she cared about them.”
Botanist Ted Oliver remembered,
"Her mode of transport was the bicycle (we have her latest model here today). She rode to the University of Cape Town up that dreadful steep road every day for a lifetime, come sunshine or rain, heat or cold. Now one knows why she was so fit and could outstrip any poor unsuspecting younger botanist in the mountains! Every day she would come up and park her bicycle behind the Bolus Herbarium building and then often jump through the window in the preparation section rather than walk all the way around to the front door.”
A newspaper cutting found among her personal effects after her death showed a side of Elsie that none of her coworkers knew existed. It was from the local Kimberley newspaper (undated) and reported on a Reading on life and works of Franz Schubert at a meeting of the Kimberley Philharmonic Society. The lecture was given by Miss E. Esterhuysen. It was preceded by another describing Burchell’s travels in South Africa during Schubert’s time and was followed by "a delightful short program of the composer’s music played as piano solos by Miss Esterhuysen".