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Rica Erickson

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  • Peter Bernhardt
    Dear Colleagues: Have you received any notification of the death of Rica Erickson in late August 2009? She was 101. The loss of Ms. Erickson may be of
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 8, 2009
      Dear Colleagues:

      Have you received any notification of the death of Rica Erickson in late August 2009?  She was 101.  The loss of Ms. Erickson may be of particular interest to American institutions collecting botanical art and/or continuing field research on the Australian flora and fauna.  

      In particular, Ms. Erickson was an authority on the orchids, carnivorous plants and trigger plants (Stylidiaceae) of Western Australia.  She also studied their pollination biology and the life-cycles of native bees and wasps.  In fact, she received some guidance and instruction on plant-insect interactions from Edith Coleman and Tarlton Rayment.  Erickson's life defined an extraordinary period in Australian natural history and the major contributions of amateurs who worked together then shared their findings with the scientific community, at large.  Some of her insect-plant work is depicted in three of her, self-illustrated books, "Orchids of The West," "Plants of Prey" and "Trigger Plants."

      Some of Ms. Erickson's memoirs were published in her last book, "A Naturalist's Life" (2005, U. of Western Australia Press).  The book mentions that examples of her original artwork are held by the Carnegie Mellon Foundation.  This must mean it is in the Hunt Botanical Institute.   

      If you were informed of the death of Ms. Erickson months ago please accept my apologies for late notification.  I arrived in Perth on September first as part of a National Geographic funded grant to work on the pollination of sun orchids (Thelymitra).  Prior to flying to WA, I asked Dr. Kingsley Dixon (Kings Park and Botanical Garden, Research/Conservation) if I could meet Ms. Erickson and he agreed to introduce me.  Unfortunately, I arrived a week too late and there was only a brief piece on Ms. Erickson's passing in an awful daily tabloid. Australia lost a living treasure and forgot to mention it to the rest of the world.  


      Peter Bernhardt
      Department of Biology
      3507 Laclede Ave.
      Saint Louis, Missouri 63103
      Tel. (work): 314-977-7152 

    • Peter Bernhardt
      Dear Perdita: Thanks for the additional information on Rica Erickson. I am sending it to American and Australian contacts who were surprised to learn of the
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 11, 2009
        Dear Perdita:

        Thanks for the additional information on Rica Erickson.  I am sending it to American and Australian contacts who were surprised to learn of the death of Rica Erickson so late and in such a second hand manner.

        I am well aware that Ms. Erickson was lionized in Western Australia following her death (and rightly so) but, let's be honest, someone fell down on the job letting the rest of the planet know that a major Australian intellect and contributor passed in August '09.  When it reaches the point that an American (me) is telling Australians in Victoria and NSW of the death of Erickson and they react with total surprise you must conclude that Western Australian sensibilities didn't bother sharing the information below with the rest of their country, let alone the world.  I'm the one who just informed the Hunt Botanical Institute (Carnegie-Mellon) of Erickson's death and they hold more of her artwork than any other institution in North America.  Surely they were entitled to this information months earlier.

        Consequently, I have not changed my opinion of "the Western Australian."  After attempting to read it for seven weeks this year I had to conclude that it's 30-40 years behind the times and belongs to the days of Australian tabloids devoted to "tits, trots and tracks" (was it Barry Humphries who used that line first?).  They don't even get things right in an obituary.  the line, "She had given her name to 6 wildflowers and 3 insects" implies she named new species after herself.  That's ridiculous.  International rules of nomenclature will not accept a description of a new species in which the describer names it after himself/herself.  In fact, Ms. Erickson was honored by her peers who named new species after her.  Often, she was the first collector of the new insect or plant and then she gave the specimen to one of her grateful colleagues who honored her in print.  You should know that one yourself as you have the same first name as a genus of bees (southwestern American-Mexican distribution),

        Sincerely, Peter     

        On Thu, Dec 10, 2009 at 8:01 PM, Liz Day <lizday44@...> wrote:
        I forwarded your message to the scientific illustration list, and someone on that list posted this, below.

        From: Perdita Phillips <perdy@...>
        To: SCIART-L@...

        Thanks Britt and Peter for passing the message on about Rica Erickson

        I hope that Peter is not implying that Rica's passing was not felt by many Western Australians. As well as being influential in botanical art circles in Perth, she was well known amongst local conservation organisations (she was an early member of the WA Naturalists Club), and local historians, with a wide range of people (over 100) attending her funeral on Wednesday, including the fomer State Premier Dr Geoff Gallop, Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Bolton, botanist Dr Alex George, Dom Chris Powers (from New Norcia Monastery) and Phillippa Nikulinsky (who talked about Rica's involvement with the Botanical Artist's group -- see <http://www.botanicagallery.com.au/bag.php)>http://www.botanicagallery.com.au/bag.php). In 1996 a nature reserve near Calingiri was named after her. You can find out more about her here: <http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/erickson/pages/naturalist.html>http://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/erickson/pages/naturalist.html. Whilst I never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, she was influential in so many fields and will be sadly missed by many. There was a full obituary on page 44 of 10 November edition of The West Australian (our "awful daily tabloid") which I have included below:

        Rica Erickson wished to understand the world around her, both plants and people. Her childlike curiosity made her a colossus of literature and science in WA and beyond. Remarkably, she indulged these intellectual pursuits outside of university.

        She was ahead of her time, never having felt discriminated against as a woman. “I could run as fast as any boy, I could jump further than most,” she explained. “I never ever thought there was any difference to start with, and the men respected me for what I was able to do.”

        Wildflowers fascinated her and she catalogued them, disseminating her knowledge in books which she painstakingly illustrated.

        Erickson was also drawn to history and wrote biographies of settlers, such as WA’s first botanist, James Drummond, in The Drummonds of Hawthornden (1969). Her 1978 biography, The Dempsters, examined that family from the early days of the former Swan River Colony to the start of the 20th century.

        At 60, she embarked on her biggest undertaking — a dictionary of people who lived in WA before 1914. The first edition covering 1850 to 1868 was published in 1979, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the State’s foundation.

        Erickson accurately anticipated resurgent interest in family trees with the approaching sesquicentenary, “knowing that people would be going back and wanting to know what ship their ancestors had come on”. She asked people to submit details of their ancestors’ arrival in WA, their occupation, lineage and religion.

        This became The Dictionary of Western Australians 1829-1914, published in five volumes between 1979 and 1986. Years later, she commented: “I’ve stepped where angels had feared to tread, and if I had foreseen what I had taken on, I would have hesitated. I would never have tried it, but it grew like Topsy.”

        She also edited The Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians pre 1829 to 1888, published in 1987 and 1988 to mark 200 years of European settlement in Australia.

        Yet, she remained a self-effacing farmer’s wife and mother.

        Rica Erickson’s interest in plants and insects was exuberant. When training to be a teacher, she was inspired by her art and nature instructors. “In 1928, during my first teaching appointment at a farm near Kojonup, I bought a motorbike, which not only enabled me to get to concerts, tennis, parties and dances but also to explore the bush,” she said. “I started sketching — insects, fungi, orchids.”

        As a botanical artist, she sought a more exciting medium than pencil or crayon, and took lessons in watercolours; the Battye Library holds 500 of her original artworks from 1932-92. She was taught how to make sectional drawings and established her reputation by painting wildflowers.

        After exhibiting at a Perth wildlife show, she was persuaded to write a text to accompany her paintings, which became her first book, Orchids of the West (1951). “I interspersed essays with descriptions purposely so as to get people interested,” she said. Erickson then wrote Triggerplants (1958) and studied carnivorous bladderworts, sundews and pitcher plants, known as fly-catchers, and visited the herbarium at London’s Kew Gardens, which led to Plants of Prey (1968).

        From 1957-61, she was the botanist on wildflower tours to the north of the State. With botanists Alex George and Neville Marchant and photographer Michael Morcombe she produced Flowers and Plants of Western Australia (1973).

        Her interest in history was stirred by the thought of old settlers going to their graves with local knowledge. In the 1960s, she fought to save Toodyay jail, now a museum. A cache of old books found under the floorboards of the courthouse brought colour to Old Toodyay and Newcastle (1974).

        She edited the 1983 book, The Brand on His Coat, which described more than 100 of the 9500 convicts transported to WA between 1850 and 1868. In The Bride Ships (1992) she described women brought to the male-dominated colony. The Misfortunes of Phoebe (1997) told the story of her maternal great- grandmother, Phoebe Morgan, who came from London to Victoria in the 1850s.

        These works were interspersed with innumerable articles for newspapers and journals. In 2006, The West Australian named her among WA’s 100 most influential people. She had given her name to six wildflowers and three insects, and her published works resulted in an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of WA in 1980, and the award of WA Citizen of the Year for Arts, also in 1980, followed by the Order of Australia in 1987.

        Examples of her art can be found in Canberra, London and the Carnegie-Mellon University in the US. In 1996 a nature reserve at Calingiri was named after her.

        Frederica Lucy Erickson was born in Boulder on August 10, 1908, eldest of eight to mine worker and volunteer infantryman Chris Sandilands and wife Tottie, nee Cooke. Her parents migrated from Victoria to the Goldfields during the gold rush. After World War I service, her father became a pioneer orchardist in Kendenup, though Rica remained in Boulder with her grandmother, Nurse Cooke, a local character.

        At seven, young Rica won a prize for nature drawing. She won a scholarship to Eastern Goldfields High School and, in 1927, began at Claremont Teachers’ College, and then taught at three one-teacher schools, finishing in Bolgart, 39km north of Toodyay, where she wed farmer Syd Erickson in 1936, resulting in her compulsory retirement.

        They had four children, Dorothy, John, Bethel and Robin. Rica and Syd were both tennis and golf champions in Bolgart, an indicator of their shared happiness besides farming and study.

        They retired to Nedlands in 1965, with Syd wanting Rica to have easy access to research material. He died in 1987. Rica published her last work in 2006. At 100, Rica was alert and enjoyed her birthday party.

        Rica Erickson died on September 8 in Mosman Park. She was 101. She is survived by her children, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 10am on December 9 at the Water Garden Pavilion, Kings Park.



        Dr Perdita Phillips
        PO Box 747
        Fremantle WA 6959

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