By Donal Griffin @donalgriffin88
Fortunately for this mini blog series, Irish inspiration in the form of famous or even forgotten scientists and pioneers is not lacking. Suitable candidates from every scientific field abound, from Antarctic exploration, to transatlantic communication to… jellyfish. In the spirit of #Internationaldayofthegirl which passed recently, I will summarise an excerpt from the book ‘Stars, shells & Bluebells: Women scientists and pioneers’ by Mary Mulvihill, which excellently details the quite extraordinary life of this most enthusiastic and driven marine biologist.
Untangling the medusa
Jellyfish seem an unlikely object of fascination but, for Maude Delap (1866-1953), they were to prove the passion of a lifetime. She collected these diaphanous creatures, reared them with care in her home-made laboratory on Valentia Island (Reenellen House, Co. Kerry), and studied their complex life cycle. Many of the specimens she collected are today in the Natural History Museum in Dublin, where some are on display, and where this remarkable woman is still remembered with affection and admiration.
Maude’s father, The Reverend Delap was a keen naturalist…and Maude took after him. Her correspondence with Dr Scharff of the Natural History Museum (the first letter filed there is dated 1894), began when she sent him a specimen of the woodlouse, Armadillo vulgaris, marking the first time that particular species had been found on the west coast. She continued to write and send specimens to the museum until 1949, when she was 83 years old.
In the late 1890’s Valentia was chosen to be the site for a detailed marine study. The choice was based, in part it seems, on work by Maude, her sister Constance and their father. When Edward T. Browne (of University College, London), came to Valentia in 1895 for this study, together with eight other British naturalists, they were given a “hearty welcome” by the Delap family. Edward Browne wrote that “the Misses Delap, who had for some years taken a great interest in the marine fauna of the harbour, gave us invaluable assistance, and their work is recorded in most of the reports”. Indeed, the report on the pelagic fauna, records that Maude and Constance “most willingly continued the ‘tow-nettings’, to collect specimens, after the departure of Edward Browne’s party in 1896”… The jellyfish (or medusa) study, written by Edward Browne himself, is again mainly based on tow-nettings by the Delap sisters “to whom I am indebted, not only for specimens, but also for valuable notes and drawings. I must take responsibility for the contents of this report and the identification of the species, but it is chiefly owing to the Misses Delap that the medusoid fauna of Valentia harbour is now better known than that of any other locality within the British area.”…
The 1985 arrival of the British naturalists was undoubtedly of immense scientific interest of Maude, yet her interest was not purely scientific, for she fell in love with Edward Browne. He, however, did not return her affection and subsequently married his colleague, Margaret Robinson…Yet Maude and Edward corresponded for more than 40 years until his death in 1937…
During the early years of the 20th century, Maude began a new activity: the difficult task of rearing jellyfish. She successfully reared one, Chrysaora isosceles, in a bell jar and published a detailed account of its development and nutritional requirements. Then she reared another, Cyanea lamarcki, but it did not do as well in activity…
In 1906 the Reverend Delap died. Sometime before this, Maude was offered a post in the Marine Biological Station at Plymouth, but she turned it down. John Barlee (*Maude’s great-nephew) says that when the offer arrived, “her father’s reaction was ‘No daughter of mine will leave home, except as a married woman!’”. By 1906 Maude was 40, and may have thought it too late to leave… In 1928 Maude Delap’s scientific work was acknowledged when Carlgreen and Stephenson named a sea anemone after her: Edwardsia delapiae. Maude had first discovered this creature burrowing in eelgrass (Zostera) on the shores of Valentia, but it has not been recorded since… In 1936 Maude’s contribution to marine biology was again acknowledged when she was made an associate of the Linnaean Society in London. (*Unusual for females of the time, she published a series of significant scientific articles and notes (particularly in the Irish Naturalist) solely under her own name in the early 20th century).
For the remainder of her life she worked hard in the garden and house, scraping a living, caring for successive waves of nieces and nephews during the summer holidays, while all the time collecting and analysing biological specimens. Maude died on July 23rd 1953. The last survivor of the Reenellen household, she is buried with her sisters on Valentia. She left her large collection of specimens, mostly jellyfish, to her great-nephew John Barlee. They were originally preserved in five percent formalin in sea water but, in her old age, Maude had not been able to renew the preservative and it evaporated. All that remained in 1953 was a sludge at the bottom of many bottles and jars, and wheelbarrow-loads of it were taken out and dumped in a large pit near the front door…
If like me, you became a little dejected by the thought of Maude’s life’s work being tossed into a pit on her front lawn after her death, stop and think about the wonderful, albeit little known legacy Maude has left on her own small patch of Ireland, and her own small patch of scientific knowledge.
Happy International Day of the Girl day!!!
Read more about Maude Delap and other inspiring Irish female scientists in ‘Stars, Shells & Bluebells: Women scientists and pioneers’ (Untangling the medusa chapter written by Anne Byrne, edited by Mary Mulvihill – buy the book here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stars-Shells-Bluebells-Scientists-Pioneers/dp/0953195309 )