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Lady Kathleen Rigg, pioneer plant scientist

By A. D. Thomson

Last August saw one of New Zealand's pioneering plant scientists celebrate a milestone, when Lady Kathleen Rigg toasted her 100th birthday at Whareama Home, Stoke on 15 August 1992.

The celebrations crowned the impressive life of Lady Rigg who, as Dr Kathleen Maisey Curtis, has had a career as a leading New Zealand woman scientist and is deserving of special recognition in this Suffrage Centennial Year.

Dr Curtis was the first woman to obtain the highest honours in university education in science. She was the first New Zealand woman to graduate with a DSc, a degree gained in 1919 at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London for outstanding research on the potato wart disease (Synchytrium endobioticum). She was awarded the Huxley Medal for her thesis research, which was cited as the most outstanding result in mycological research that had been presented for ten years.

During her scientific career, Dr Curtis attained many firsts for a woman in New Zealand science and demonstrated for the first time that it was possible in the early years of the 20th century for a woman to attain the highest level in science.

Dr Curtis was born in Foxton, the daughter of Paul Curtis and Mary Emma (née Armitage). Her father was postmaster at Foxton and at Lyttelton. She attended primary school in Lyttelton and secondary school at Auckland Girls' Grammar School. At Auckland University College she graduated with a BA in 1914 and was Senior Scholar in botany. She then graduated MA with First Class Honours in botany in 1915, and was awarded three postgraduate scholarships. She accepted the prestigious 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, the first woman to hold it. Her transport to London was assisted by an Orient Shipping Company travelling scholarship for distinguished students to travel to England.

After graduating with her DSc, the new Dr Curtis was appointed in 1920 as a foundation member -- and the only woman staff member -- of the newly-established Cawthron Institute in Nelson, which was to become a leading New Zealand research organisation. In the photo of the staff and trustees of the private science institute, taken on April 2nd, 1921, she stands out amongst the venerable gentlemen, such as Lord Jellicoe and Bishop Sadlier, and male leaders of the New Zealand scientific community such as Sir Thomas Easterfield and Sir Theodore Rigg. Forty-five years later, Dr Curtis was to become Lady Rigg, with her marriage to Sir Theodore.

Dr Curtis was the first woman appointed to a research position in New Zealand and is considered to be one of the founders of the study of plant pathology in New Zealand.

Between 1921 and 1952 when she retired, Dr Curtis published some 27 research papers on a range of topics in mycology and plant pathology, mainly in relation to the Nelson region. Especially notable was her research on the black spot disease of apples and pears (Venturia inaequalis), and she was the first scientist in New Zealand to undertake research on the subject of resistance in plants to disease. She was also the first to draw attention to the significance of virus diseases in New Zealand.

In recognition of her contributions to scientific research, Dr Curtis was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1936 -- the first woman to be so elected -- and she is now the Senior Fellow.

A. D. Thomson is director of the Centre for Studies on NZ Science History.