General news

Photo of a portrait of Dr Kathleen Curtis – Cawthron Archives
22 December 2016

A passionate affair

Nearly 100 years apart, two women are contributing to New Zealand science at Cawthron Institute.

In 1920, The Colonist contained a headline “An important appointment” and the article went on to say “The Trustees of Cawthron Institute have appointed Miss Kathleen Curtis, as mycologist on their staff of scientists” (Volume LXII, Issue 15308, 23 February 1920).

The person they appointed was indeed ‘important’ and was a woman of many firsts.

Curtis was the first New Zealand woman to be awarded a Doctorate of Science; the first to be appointed to any research position in the country; and the first female scientist to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

At Auckland University, Curtis initially gained a Bachelor of Arts degree and then completed a Master of Arts – and the standard of her work was so high that she gained three scholarships. She could only accept two, choosing the Exhibition Scholarship at the Imperial College of Science in London and the Orient Company’s scholarship to travel to England where Curtis continued to pick up awards, including the Huxley Gold Medal for research.

Curtis returned to New Zealand in 1919 with a Doctorate of Science from the University of London, which at the time was the highest academic distinction of any New Zealand-born woman.

Cawthron Institute, the only organisation in New Zealand solely devoted to scientific research, offered her a place as mycologist in its biology department. The job was tailor-made for her and Curtis remained at Cawthron until her retirement in 1952.

The K.M. Curtis Field Laboratory opened in Curtis' honour in 1953 – Cawthron Archives

Her other first during this time was being the first female to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1936).

Curtis’ background perfectly positioned her to tackle problems faced by primary producers – specifically those caused by fungal diseases on fruit. She demonstrated that dead leaves of diseased trees harboured spores from one season to the next. Application of a leaf spray limited spore release. Growers were further assisted when the Institute developed a warning system that helped them recognise the optimum times to spray, resulting in crops improving in both size and quality.

This work was typical of the practical applications that her research continued to provide over her 33 years at the Institute. Curtis was held in high regard by her colleagues and the agricultural, orchard and forestry industries.

Curtis remained single until 1966 when, aged 74 she married her widowed colleague, Sir Theodore Rigg. Rigg had been married for the time she worked alongside him at Cawthron, and it was obviously a relationship built on respect, admiration and a shared thirst for science.

To this day Curtis is still regarded as one of Cawthron’s most outstanding scientists. In recognition of her contributions, one of the Institute’s inaugural summer scholarships is named after her – nearly 100 years after she took up her position at Cawthron.

These scholarships support emerging and talented New Zealand scientists and Grace Newson is the 2016 Kathleen Curtis scholarship recipient. Newson has completed her third year of a Bachelor of Science degree at Victoria University and is majoring in marine biology.

Grace Newson, the first recipient of the Kathleen Curtis scholarship

From a young age Newson has been driven to conserve, protect and learn about the natural environment. She has volunteered on Sommes Island with local conservation projects in the North Island and says being at Cawthron this summer is a “dream job”. “My summer project is around creating length/dry weight relationships for New Zealand freshwater invertebrates and then examining the energy content of these critters”, Newson says.

Newson wants to pursue postgraduate study next year and says “I will have new skills under my belt learnt through my experience here at Cawthron”.

Scholarships are important to support the future of scientific discovery and help provide world-class hands-on learning experiences for our future innovators. The Cawthron scholarships are specifically designed to provide a balance of hands-on learning experiences and scientific excellence. The scholarships are made possible by the Cawthron Foundation, which raises donations, bequest and endowments towards public-good science and scholarships.

For more information please contact:
Elizabeth Bean
Cawthron Foundation
Phone: +64 3 5394336 or +64 274148781

The Cawthron Foundation would like to thank individual donors, Network Tasman Trust and Cawthron Institute who made the scholarship possible.