In celebration of 125 years since women gained the right to vote, we are sharing the stories of inspirational and trailblazing New Zealand women.

Pioneering young curator: adventurous and outstanding Lucy May Cranwell, MA, DSc, DSc(Hon.), FLS(Lond.), FRSNZ, 1907-2000

Dr Lucy Cranwell was an internationally renowned botanist and palynologist (expert on pollen and spores) who began her career at the Auckland Museum as a university graduate in 1929.

She moved permanently to America as a war bride in 1944 where she continued her work on Gondwanan pollen and Hawaiian peat up until her death in Arizona in 2000.

Along with collecting 61 kg vegetable sheep, running ladies-only botanising events and having parks in Auckland named after her, Lucy was the true definition of a trailblazing woman.

Image: The ladies field work party: two Lucys on their second scientific trip to Taranga (Hen Island); and the male landing crew, Nov 1934. (Lucy Cranwell 2nd from left, Lucy Moore 3rd from left). Auckland Museum Collection.

Lucy was the Museum’s inaugural curator of botany. She was only 21 years old and began some six months before the new building in the Domain opened (28 Nov 1929), and as such was heavily involved in new displays.

One of the more interesting botanical display specimens collected was a vegetable sheep from Canterbury’s Torlesse Range (image below); it remained on display for 65 years.

Vegetable sheep, Raoulia eximia, a compact daisy from high up on the Torlesse Range collected by the two Lucys and Arnold Wall in January 1931 to exhibit in the Auckland Museum. The fresh weight was 61 kg, and they carried it down in a stretcher. Professor Wall wrote a poem about the adventure: "How they brought the good sheep from Torlesse to Christchurch" published in The Press, 7 Feb 1931.

AK 209589, CC BY

Lucy was energetic and introduced many new initiatives to the Museum, like: setting up the popular annual Cheeseman Memorial Spring Native Flower Show in 1932 (image right); the Native Wildflower Circle - a club to encourage children to collect and exchange native seeds; held “botany trots” for children in particular; maintained a public native plant table outside her door, and wrote 160 authoritative articles on a wide range of botanical topics for the local paper, Auckland Star.

Image (right): Lucy setting up the Cheeseman Memorial Spring Native Flower Show, in 1933 in the Museum. In 1937 the Loder Cup was awarded to the Auckland Institute and Museum in association with its botanist Lucy Cranwell, for instigating the popular Cheeseman Memorial Spring Native Flower Show (1932-63), attracting an attendance of 10,449 (in 1937) and contributing 160 popular articles on native plants. Auckland Museum collection.

Together with her close botanical friend, Lucy Moore (1909-87) who also became a famous botanist, the “two Lucys” carried out pioneering fieldwork in remote areas of New Zealand during the 1930s, collecting plant specimens and publishing their exciting discoveries.

Mountain tops visited by them included ten trips to Te Moehau (Coromandel Range), Mt Maungapohatu (Urewera), Mt Hikurangi, Taranaki, and Mt Pirongia. March 1930 was the two Lucys’ first great expedition to the summit of the remote Mt Maungapohatu from the newly opened road to Lake Waikaremoana.

“We set off at 3am in a truck back to the Papatotara Saddle and from there trudged the deep-worn horse track across three steep ridges to Rua’s [Rua Kenana, Maori prophet] Pa at the base of our mountain [Maungapohatu] … an almost vertical (image right) surveyor’s route took us to the flattish summit just as the sun was setting. When dawn came the mountain plants were covered with a delicate layer of frost… reluctantly we left at 11.30, loaded down with specimens, to meet the 4 o’clock deadline at Papatotara. From our six hours of observations on this botanically undocumented mountain we wrote our first paper, with all the confidence of youth.” (Lucy Moore 1986).

Image (right): The “two Lucys” climbing Mt Maungapohatu, as part of their North Island mountain-top survey, in their brothers’ shorts (no women’s field clothes available), Jan 1932. (Lucy Cranwell on right). Auckland Museum collection.

When Lucy Cranwell was excluded from the “male only” (image below) Museum organised Three Kings Islands field trip, she organised her own women’s scientific trips to Taranga (Hen and Chicken Islands) (first image above on page) and they published their findings in the Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum (1935).

The all-male “Will Watch” expedition to the Three Kings Islands (Manawatahi), departing Auckland in Feb 1934.

Auckland Museum Collection.

This was followed by similar work and publications on the Poor Knights Islands, including the intertidal algal communities, giving the first real insight into zoning of our marine shores. Over 4200 of Lucy’s herbarium specimens collected on such trips are available online:

Lucy’s life-long study of fossil pollen began in 1935 when she attended the Sixth International Botanical Congress (image right) in Amsterdam and was invited by Professor Lennart von Post of Stockholm, founder of pollen analysis, to study NZ pollen (image below) from post-glacial peat samples from Otago and Southland.

This was the turning point in Lucy’s career. Their joint paper (1936) on vegetation history with climate interpretations and pollen diagrams was a new type of approach for the Southern Hemisphere. Lucy was the first to describe in detail fossil pollen of Australasian and South American southern beech and of NZ conifers.

Image (right): The “two Lucys” en route to the 6th International Plant Congress in Amsterdam. Aden (Yemen), 1935, Auckland Museum Collection.

Several living and fossil plant taxa, a steep west Auckland bush track, and a park in Henderson have been named in Lucy's honour.

The living taxa, which are named after her, include a native crustose lichen, two seaweeds, a native grass, and three Hawaiian flowering plants.

One of Lucy’s pollen grain images (plate 55) of the native flora.

Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum 2: 280-308, 1942.​




1937     Loder Cup on behalf of the Auckland Museum for her contribution through the Native Flower Shows in creating live public interest in the beauties of our native flora

1937     Fellow of the Linnaean Society (Fig. 8) in recognition of botanical research carried out in New Zealand and Sweden and because of the efforts she has made to stimulate interest in botany

1938     Bishop Museum (Honolulu) Fellowship by Yale University that began her studies on Hawaiian montane bogs

1944     Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand – the second woman to receive this award

1954     Hector Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand for research on pollens – the first woman to receive this award

1959     DSc from Auckland University College, University of New Zealand

1964     Honorary Life member of the Auckland Institute and Museum

1989     Honorary Member of the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists, in recognition of her distinguished career in pioneering research, which has materially contributed to our understanding of Southern Hemisphere palynomorphs and the evolution and paleoecology of Gondwanan floras

1992     Honorary DSc from University of Auckland

1999     Fellow of the Auckland War Memorial Museum in recognition of her life-long distinguished contribution to botany


Image (right): Image from the public announcement of Lucy receiving her FLS from London. NZ Herald, 27 Jan 1938.


Cameron, E.K. 2000: [obituary] Lucy May Cranwell MA, DSc, DSc(Hon), FLS(Lon.), FRSNZ, 1907-2000. NZ Journal of Botany 38: 527-535. 

Moore, L.B. 1986: Inaugural Lucy M. Cranwell Lecture: Cranwell botany in the Auckland years. Auckland Botanical Society Newsletter 41: 19-35. 

Thomson, A.D. [unattributed] 2000: [obituary] Lucy May Cranwell Smith MA, DSc, DSc(Hon), FLS, FRSNZ, 1907-2000. Yearbook of the Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand 2000: 48-64.

Cite this article 

Cameron, Ewen K. 'Lucy Cranwell - Pioneering young curator, adventurous and outstanding', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 12 07 2018.