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Where is Kate Crooks' 19th century botany collection from Southwestern Ontario?

Kingston librarian Anna Soper is on a quest to learn more about Catharine McGill Crooks, who collected plant specimens pre-industrialized Southwest Ontario.

Catharine McGill Crooks collected specimens in the 1860s in Hamilton, Cambridge and London

This image of Kate Crooks was taken in Hamilton in the mid-1860s by Robert Milne. (Submitted by Anna Soper)

Kingston librarian Anna Soper is on a quest to learn more about Catharine McGill Crooks, who collected plant specimens in the 1860s in London, Cambridge and Hamilton.

Soper is an avid gardener and recently began a project surveying local flora in Kingston. In her research, she came across Crooks' name who was a member of the Kingston-based Botanical Society of Canada.

"I discovered this woman Kate Crooks and I thought, 'How come I've never heard of this person before?'"

Soper was familiar with other renowned botanists such as Catherine Parr Traill and Mary Delany.

So, Soper began digging.

"She was born in a fairly prominent family in Upper Canada in 1833. She was born in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which was Newark at the time," said Soper, who recently wrote an article in Atlas Obscura about Kate Crooks.

The practice of pressing wildflowers and other plants into the pages of books was considered appropriate for women in the 19th century, and has proved to be invaluable today, as scientists learn more about our pre-industrialized landscape.

"She actually captured a really unique record of plant life in Southwestern Ontario before industrialization. She has recorded a number of plants that in some cases are not found in southwestern Ontario anymore. They're considered locally extinct," Soper explained.

This is Kate Crooks' only known specimen. It is stored at McGill University's Herbarium. (Dr. Frieda Beauregard/McGill University Herbarium Curator)

Crooks died in her 30s after giving birth to her third child. She is credited with a 500-specimen collection, in collaboration with her brother-in-law. That collection was sent to London, England in 1862 for an international exhibition as part of a Canadian display. 

But where is that collection today? Soper began searching, and so far has only come across a single specimen. 

"The specimens is at McGill University's Herbarium. It's actually a very unique specimen. It is the only known collection of this particular plant from Ontario. This plant is now locally extinct and the plant is called rose pink."

Soper said Crooks collected the flower in Hamilton in 1865.

Anna Soper is a librarian at Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston. (Submitted by Anna Soper)

Soper said Crook is known to have collected wild lupine in the London area, as well as spicebush, false pennyroyal and Ontario blazing star. 

It's important to find Crooks' collection, said Soper, because scientists can extract DNA from specimens and better understand a world before industrialization.

"You can also do sort of a model of how a plant range might shrink or expand as climate changes. So it's really important for scientists to actually work from physical specimens as opposed to records."

Soper thinks the collection is out there, but it might be like finding a needle in a haystack.

"A lot of the botanists and curators I contacted said, 'We have 25,000 specimens and we don't know who collected 10,000 of them.'"

Kate Crooks was a botanist who worked in southwestern Ontario in the 1860s, collecting and naming hundreds of plant species. London Morning host Rebecca Zandbergen spoke to Kingston librarian Anna Soper about her quest to find out more about Crooks and her collection. 7:02

About the Author

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 15 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna.

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