The amazing Dr Rye

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, botany was often regarded as a pursuit that was 'suitable' for women, in an era when most scientific disciplines excluded their participation. Nevertheless, even in botany women were generally permitted to dabble, but were rarely permitted to make a serious and substantial contribution.


This social norm of both inclusion and exclusion was highlighted in a paper published in 2015 by Heather Lindon and colleagues from Kew Gardens. Of all the plant names published since 1753 (the starting date for the formal naming of plants), fewer than 3% have been published by female authors.


In this context, we should celebrate the achievements of Dr Barbara Rye from the Western Australian Herbarium in Perth. A 2019 updated analysis of records of all published plant names (from the International Plant Names Index) shows that our Dr Rye is one of the all-time top-10 women authors of plant names in the world.


Western Australia's Dr Rye is one of the all-time top-10 women authors of plant names in the world

Barbara Rye grew up in Perth, at a time when there was more bushland than there is at present, and children roamed more widely. Like many children, Barbara was fascinated by creatures and the bush, and spent much time tadpoling, catching insects and marveling at the wildflowers for which Perth is famous. A wildflower-season bus trip in late teen years with her mother (during which participants were allowed to collect and press sprigs of the abundant spring wildflowers, something that would be frowned upon now), consolidated a love of nature and a fascination with Western Australia's remarkable biodiversity.


Barbara was able to pursue her interest at the University of Western Australia, with undergraduate studies in both botany and zoology followed by a PhD under the mentorship of Associate Professor Sid James, who inspired a whole generation of Western Australian biologists. As with others in the James lab, Barbara studied genetics, specifically chromosome evolution and reproductive biology in the family Myrtaceae, which is diverse and abundant in Australia (and especially so in the south-west).


Studying chromosome evolution in a biodiversity hotspot like Southwest Western Australia, it wasn't long before the (soon-to-be Dr) Rye discovered her first new species – Darwinia capitellata, which she segregated from the widespread Darwinia diosmoides based firstly on its different chromosome number, amply confirmed by morphological studies.


Darwinia capitellata, Barbara Rye's first new species. Photo: Roger Fryer and Jill Newland CC-BY-NC, http://www.northqueenslandplants.com/Australian%20Plant%20Families%20G-M/Myrtaceae/Darwinia/Darwinia%20capitellata.html

Her first new species was followed by many more. A position at the Western Australian Herbarium since 1981 has given her ample scope to range across the rich flora of Western Australia, a biodiversity hotspot and an area that still yields many new species every year. She was a co-author of the Flora of the Perth Region and Flora of the Kimberley, produced a Flora of Australia revision of the large family Thymelaeaceae, and revised and described new species in many genera in a range of families.


During her career she has continued to work a rich vein in the taxonomy of the family Myrtaceae. Despite decades of work by Dr Rye and others, this family still has at least 150 undescribed species in Western Australia, including in Darwinia, the genus that first caught Barbara's taxonomic attention during her PhD.


Barbara Rye has clearly made the substantial contribution to the discovery and documentation of Australia's species that was once denied so many talented women. She has named, alone or with co-authors, over 230 new Australian species, and counting.


In 2019, the Australian Academy of Science released the Women in STEM Decadal Plan, which sets out the steps needed to finally bring gender equity to science. It's appropriate then in this year that we celebrate the remarkable achievements of scientists like Dr Barbara Rye, one of the most productive women botanists in the world.


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