Matilda Knowles was part of the generation that marked a new era for women in science. She is regarded as the founder of modern studies of Irish lichens and she was a contributor to the ground-breaking Clare Island Survey from 1909-11.
As a child, her father William, an insurance agent, naturalist and archaeologist, took her and her sister Catherine along to meetings of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club. It was here that she met Robert Lloyd Praegar. Both Margaret and Catherine attended natural science classes at the Royal College of Science in Dublin.
In 1902 she was appointed as a temporary assistant in the Botanical section of what was to become the National Musuem of Ireland. In 1910, she was co-author, along with Professor Thomas Johnson, of the Hand List of Irish Flowering Plants and Ferns.
Knowles was one of 100 scientists who worked with Praeger on the Clare Island Survey. She was invited to participate by the botanist Annie Lorrain Smith, one of the first female Fellows of the Linnaen Society. Knowles focused on lichen distribution and continued to study lichens after the survey. Her first major paper, The Maritime and Marine Lichens of Howth, was published in 1913 and became a classic of Irish botanical literature.
In 1929, she published The Lichens of Ireland.This recorded more than 800 species of lichen. She had had to reorganise thousands of existing records as well as conducting her own field work and getting samples from other naturalists. Around 20 speices were new to Ireland and a few were recorded by her for the first time. Two lichen species, Lecidia matildae and Verrucaria knowlesiae, are named after her.
exceptional ability as observer and collector
Knowles had a wide influence on Irish botany and in 1923 she became acting curator of the botanical section of the National Museum of Ireland. She received enquries and samples from botanists all over the world. Today, the herbarium has more than 750,000 examples of Irish and international flora which are housed at the National Botanic Garden of Ireland. Samples are used for naming, conservation and tracking climate change.