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The stories you read in memoirs and biographies are often the most brave and compelling.
We asked the six authors shortlisted for the 2019 National Biography Award to share the most surprising thing they learnt about themselves or their subjects.
The Wasp and the Orchid: The remarkable life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman (Pan Macmillan Australia)
When I started writing about Edith Coleman, I already knew she was a very impressive self-taught Australian naturalist. I had heard about her from biologists at the Museum of Victoria – and I’d read about her famous discovery of pseudocopulation. This work finally solved a mystery that had puzzled even Darwin – why do orchids have elaborate flowers to attract insects when they don’t have nectar to reward them for pollination? The answer was that some orchids offer sex instead – attracting male wasps by mimicking female wasps, effectively tricking them into facilitating orchid reproduction at the expense their own.
Edith had a lifelong interest in natural history but she only started publisher her work at the age of 47 when she joined the Field Naturalist’s Club of Victoria. While her scientific papers had been catalogued no-one had previously tracked down the papers she wrote for popular newspapers and magazine. I was surprised to find that over her 29 year career she wrote more than 300 scientific and popular articles on a wide range of Australian natural history on everything from echidnas and honeyeaters, to mistletoe and grasshoppers.
Her work ethic must have been prodigious, so I was even more surprised to realise that she had also suffered from a debilitating illness — Meniere’s disease. This condition causes dizziness, tinnitus and nausea. Edith seems to have developed this disease early and in a severe form. She lost teeth and her hearing in one ear from failed efforts to cure her condition but it never slowed down her productivity. Her daughter Dorothy retired from teaching to look after her mother, but even in the weeks prior to her death from cancer Edith was writing up papers on the birds she could see out of her window.