Storied Botanical Collections: The Life & Curatorship of Dr. Dorothy Swales

This blog post is an excerpt drawn from my thesis where I foreground the life and curatorship of Dr. Dorothy Newton Swales (1901-2001), the first woman to curate the McGill University Herbarium. Throughout the research process, I wondered what it meant to go beyond the information on the voucher labels to experiment with telling Dr. Swales’ story by weaving in the lives of the lichens and flowering plants who profoundly impacted her life and research. Inspired by Donna Haraway’s feminist epistemology of situated knowledge, I also wove in my own thoughts, perspectives, and experiences into my writing during my hands-on research and digitization in the herbarium.


 “Flowers have bloomed every year of my life, the brightest being the close ties with three family generations (including a son, his wife and three grandsons), a husband who opened my eyes and ears to the creatures of the wild, and botanists, students and friends who have added warmth to each decade.”

– Dorothy Swales, The Outdoor Trail from Farm to University

Born in 1901 and raised on a farm in Plaisance, Québec, Dorothy Newton Swales grew up surrounded by an abundance of nature. As she recalls in her memoir, “I watched the bees pollinating the flowers and was fascinated at the way they combed their bodies with their two front legs and packed pollen in a pollen basket on their hind legs […] It opened a door to me which has never closed.”[1] Enchantment, fascination, and curiosity – these early experiences with the natural world profoundly shaped not only how Swales would see the myriad connections between human and more-than-human lives but also influenced how she approached the more-than-human world in her interactions as an educator, botanist, and herbarium curator. 

Inspired by her love of the natural world and encouraged by her siblings who all went on to pursue higher education in the natural sciences, Swales earned a Bachelor of Science in Plant Pathology at Macdonald College in 1921, one of the only female students in her cohort. It was at this time that Dorothy Swales, among other women in the sciences, trained as a specialist while learning to swim against the tide of gendered prejudices about what a scientist should look like and the kind of research they were qualified to undertake.[2]

Dorothy Swales (centre – white blouse) as an undergraduate student at Macdonald college in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec. Photo courtesy of Dr. David Swales.
[Image description: In this black and white photograph of undergraduate students at Macdonald College, students stand dressed in black and white behind several tables and chairs conducting experiments. Most students appear to be men. Dorothy Swales is pictured in the centre wearing a white blouse.]

Swales pursued a Master of Science in Bacteriology at Macdonald in 1923. For her graduate research, she travelled to the Atlantic Biological Station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick to research under the guidance of the director of the station, Dr. A.G. Huntsman. After successfully completing her degree, she later received a Hudson Bay Scholarship to pursue a PhD in Mycology at the University of Manitoba with a focus on fungal sexuality. This accomplishment made Swales the first woman to receive a PhD from the University in 1931. During her PhD, Swales travelled to Europe to both improve her German language skills, a university requirement for acquiring her PhD, and also to deepen her understanding of botany through course lectures and hands-on field work.

Dorothy Swales and fellow botanists hiking in Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Dr. David Swales.
[Image description: Dorothy Swales stands among foliage as a graduate student in Switzerland where she spent the summer collecting and identifying local plants accompanied by local botanists. In the photo four people stand in a row with their arms across their chests, hands planted on their hips, or resting on walking sticks. Dorothy is third from the right between two men on the left and one on the right.]

In 1964, Swales took over curatorship of the Macdonald College Herbarium making her the first woman to hold this position. Her curatorial practices were shaped by the view that an herbarium was more than just a room full of cabinets and plant sheets. In her unprocessed notes, Swales writes that an herbarium “at its best can be a lively useful centre reflecting the outdoors of your own locality, of far parts of Canada, and even of the mysteries of Lappland and Siberia.” The beauty of the Arctic fascinated Swales in particular and upon taking over the curatorship of the Macdonald College Herbarium, Dr. Swales chose to specialize in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. As she writes in her unprocessed notes entitled “Gardens of the Eastern Canadian Arctic” on her travels to Iqaluit, “Arctic flowers are beautiful. There are few people who are not awed into silence and wonder in the midst of the tundra in July, covered literally with thousands of plants in bloom at once.” Sitting in the Herbarium reading through her notes on her travels to Arctic and sub-Arctic, it was clear that Dr. Swales was thoroughly captivated by the natural life around her: “The whole world of plants adapted to high winds, short seasons, biting snow spicules and intense winter cold spread out before me in all their brilliant colours.”[3]

Noticing: Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina)

Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina) collected by Dorothy Swales in July 1964 while travelling across Nunavut. Image taken by author.
[Image description: a closeup of a piece of white-grey lichen specimen.]

Swales’ curatorship involved establishing connections with herbaria abroad to increase the Macdonald College Herbarium’s collection, exchanging preserved specimens, and obtaining assistance with identification. Dr. Swales considered exchanges between herbaria essential. During her tenure, she established relationships with the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Sweden, the Universitetets Botaniske Museum in Denmark, and the Komarov Botanical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in the U.S.S.R. Dr. Swales sent plants collected during trips to the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and other locations across Canada in exchange for plants from Greenland, Swedish Lapland, and Siberia. As she explained, “we are fairly unique in Canada in establishing an exchange of Siberian plants with the Soviet Union as so far, they have not exchanged freely with Canada, outside of the National Herbarium in Ottawa.”[4] Correspondence between Dr. Swales and her colleagues overseas detailed the genera and species available to send, made requests for assistance with identification, and offered the occasional apology for delayed responses due to summer fieldwork. Moss and lichen, though small and often unnoticed in the wild, helped fill the gaps caused by geographic distance and international rifts that were so prevalent during the Cold War. 

The letters exchanged between Dr. Swales and curators of herbaria in Sweden and the former Soviet Union detailed lists of lichen and moss specimens collected in the Northwest Territories available for exchange, as well as requests for assistance with identification. The thin papers were peppered with names like Cetraria nivalis and Cladonia alpestris, names that certainly did not easily roll off the tongue for someone new to this world.

I set off to the far corner of the Herbarium to the lichen cabinet to start my search. As I wound through the collections, I found that lichens are stored upright in small envelopes organized by genus and species, unlike their flowering plant specimen neighbors in nearby cabinets preserved on flat sheets of paper. Gently browsing through the rows of envelopes felt like navigating a card catalogue as my eyes scanned the labels for the familiar marker that had become my signpost: Collector: Dorothy E. Swales. Cladonia rangiferina was the first that I came across and there I saw another of its names: Reindeer Moss. As I slowly unfolded the envelope, the dirt and dried lichenous matter that had collected at the bottom over the years jumped and vibrated with each movement of the stiff paper. Glued to a piece of paper the size of an index card, the bone-white lichen resembled the antlers of reindeer stacked one upon another.

As she writes in a Montreal Star article on her time in Iqaluit, moss and lichen marked the few signs of growth among the rocks except for small plants aptly known as rockfoil.[5] To gather lichen and moss, Swales would turn her gaze down to the ground, paying close attention to what others missed. In her unprocessed notes, “Gardens of the Eastern Canadian Arctic,” Swales remarks that “much of arctic beauty and interest lies in the ‘microhabitat,’ or the small things you discover at your feet.”[6] The reindeer mosses she encountered in the summer of 1964 were found in rock crevices where other forms of life might not have been able to survive and in doing so supported life for bodies larger than their own. Their ability to persist despite cold winds enables life for reindeer and caribou in the colder regions of North America, Scandinavia, and Russia who subsist on certain lichen for food during the winter months, as well as for the Indigenous communities whose culture and way of life centres around these animals.[7]

Lichens are the very definition of symbiotic matter. Formed through the union of fungus and algae, lichens are seen in the scientific world as a “classic case of mutualism, where all partners gain benefits from the association.”[8] In quiet ways, lichens speak to the presence of environmental damage and pollution. As James Walton explains, since lichen “do not have an outer epidermal layer, they cannot discriminate between nutrients and pollutants, and absorb both.”[9] Thus, like a canary in the coal mine, a decrease in their presence can point to poor air quality and unseen pollution, which in turn helps environmental scientists understand the development of local pollution over time.[10] That something as small as lichen can contain within it the larger story of human impact on the environment speaks to the importance of bringing into focus that which is often overlooked.

Connection: Sweet vetch (Hedysarum sp.)  

Herbarium voucher of Hedysarum mackenzii Richards (Wild Sweet Pea or Bear Root) that Swales encountered in June 1965 in Inuvik. Image taken by author.
[Image description: two dried Wild Sweet Pea plants on a herbarium sheet. On the left is a typed label describing where the plants were found and on the right is a label details of when and where they were collected.]

The Hedysarum mackenzii that I came across early in my exploration of Dr. Swales’ life would have been considered scientifically valuable as part of exchanges on both sides of the world to better understand and document Arctic flora. The petals of the Hedysarum, even after all these years, kept a vibrant purple colour tinged with orange likely from oxidation. Large enough to cover the entire sheet, the Hedysarum had been delicately secured with glue at various points, fixed in a position where the flowers on either end seemed to be reaching out to one another. The specimen label that my eyes had been trained to look for first to find Dr. Swales’ name had been placed over the stem. The Hedysarum seemed so expansive on the page there was nowhere left for whoever preserved the plant to place the small square label, and so they placed it over the stem, permanently curving it to the shape of the plant pushing up the words: “In copse of willow, on dry gravel by road. Common.” Noting plants as ‘common’ is considered standard when describing an expected member of an assemblage in different habitats. Swales would certainly have considered this pea plant as a familiar presence during her summer field work. However, botanical preservation description only captures a small part of the Hedysarum’s story both before and after collection. 

Growing closer to the ground as a defense against desiccation from the harsh winds, Arctic plants tend to be smaller and their roots spread close to the surface, seeking out the warmest parts of the soil or partnering with symbiotrophic fungi which, in return for carbon, can aid plants in reaching nutrients from newly thawed permafrost.[11] It is in this environment that the Hedysarum can be found. Known broadly as sweet vetches, the Hedysarum’s versatile uses across Canada led it to become known for its medicinal and edible properties. Indigenous communities such as the Alaskan Inuit and Interior Dene peoples are known to forage the sweet-tasting roots of Hedysarum alpinum which can be enjoyed raw or boiled as well as softened into baby food.[12] Grizzly bears, too, are known to consume the roots of Hedysarum plants, which earned the flower the common English name Bear Root. Like moss and lichen, the licorice root exists on the edges of the Canadian Arctic where they thrive, sustaining life for humans and more-than-humans alike.

Botanists like Swales would immerse themselves in their fieldwork during the short Arctic summer period. The Canadian Arctic where Dr. Swales conducted her summer fieldwork was not unlike the Arctic that the botanists in Stockholm and Leningrad would have known through their trips and work with the herbaria at their institutions. Swales was fascinated with these flowers and their pollinators, observing their relationship over the course of the short Arctic summers. In exchanges with international herbaria, botanists sent lists of plants collected during summer trips available for exchange. In one of the earliest correspondences, the Komarov Herbarium in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) enthusiastically stated that all subspecies of Hedysarum, such as Hedysarum boreale (Northern sweet-vetch) and Hedysarum alpinum (Alpine sweet-vetch or licorice root), would be welcome for exchange. The Hedysarum that Swales collected during her fieldwork would have been a familiar sight to her Russian colleagues whose own research took them to the northern corners of Siberia. Despite global divisions caused by the Cold War, a love of Arctic plants like the Hedysarum bridged the divide between Swales and botanists in the USSR. As Dr. Swales writes in her memoir, through the exchange of plants “the Iron Curtain faded to a slight shadow between us.”[13]

 Reciprocity: Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae

Cypripedium reginae Walt (Showy Lady’s Slipper) collected by Swales on Rigaud Mountain in June 1966. Image by author.
[Image description: a specimen collection shows a dried flattened flower pressed against a page labeled Macdonald College Herbarium. The flower shows spiney roots, wide green leaves, and a single orchid flower at the top, colored faint yellow.]

In an interview with Dr. David Swales, Dorothy Swales’ son, I asked if his mother had a favourite flower of all the ones that she had encountered in her life. He responded that it was by far the yellow lady-slipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum). I imagined the threads of her life that were intertwined with other botanists like the unseen roots of the lady-slipper orchid flower. As Swales loved orchids best of all flowers, I wanted to look closer at the orchids she encountered and added to the Herbarium assemblage during her life. It was fitting that orchids, with their unique life-giving and sustaining bond with underground fungi, were her favourite. For Cypripedium orchids, life begins with creating a fungal relationship as orchid seeds need fungi to germinate and grow.[14]. For lady-slipper orchids in particular, the partnership with fungi has also been found to extend into the roots of trees, forming interconnected relations of exchanged minerals and nutrients.

Gently sifting through the different sheets, Dr. Swales’ name jumped out at me time and again. It was clear that even after her tenure as curator ended, her connection to the Herbarium continued. Her name could be found on vouchers as the identifier for specimens collected by students indicating her continued involvement as educator and collaborator. The kind of interconnectedness and reciprocity that enables orchids to grow and thrive defined Swales’ life as a botanist and mentor. Much of her life was shaped by partnerships with other women in the sciences. As her son recounted, she was considered a mother away from home for many international students who came to McGill to study plant science, and this mentorship led to friendships with students around the world even after her retirement. In a letter to Swales, Joanne Marchand, a former student who went on to teach biology, wrote, “every time I am asked who my inspirations have been… I always tell them about my summer at the herbarium [and] I tell them about you, your life’s work, about how you accomplished what most women (then and even now) could only dream of. And I tell them how fortunate I am to have worked with you, to have your friendship… your influence and inspiration continues even though you are miles away.”[15]

To learn more about Dr. Swales’ collections, you can visit


[1] Dorothy Swales, “From the Outdoor Trail,” in A Fair Shake: Autobiographical Essays by McGill Women, Margaret Gillett and Kay Sibbald, eds. (Eden Press, 1984), 16-17.

[2] In The Outdoor Trail, Swales describes how her older sister Margaret, who would later become a specialist in wheat rust pathogens, was discouraged by colleagues from applying to an agricultural college as “no women had entered an agricultural college in Canada before 1914 [and] she would probably fail the practical courses.” Margaret refused to give up and, as Swales attests, “opened a door to women in agriculture.”

[3] Dorothy Swales, unprocessed notes on herbarium curatorship (n.d.), McGill University Herbarium, Montreal, Quebec.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dorothy E. Swales, “Winter’s Touch Felt at Frobisher Bay,” The Montreal Star (August 18, 1964), 10.

[6] Dorothy Swales. “Gardens of the Eastern Canadian Arctic.”

[7] Per Sandström, Neil Cory, Johan Svensson, Henrik Hedenås, Leif Jougda, and Nanna Borchert, “On the Decline of Ground Lichen Forests in the Swedish Boreal Landscape: Implications for Reindeer Husbandry and Sustainable Forest Management,” Ambio 45 (2016), 417.

[8] Thomas H. Nash (ed.), Lichen biology (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1.

[9] James Walton, “Lichens of the Arctic,” Science in Alaska’s Arctic Parks (last modified October 26, 2021).

[10] Lichens respond to different air pollutants in their own ways. As Jessica L. Allen and James C. Lendemer explain, while some species of lichen such as Cladonia cristatella (British Soldier Lichen) can tolerate air pollution in urban areas such as New York City, other species such as Punctelia rudecta (Rough Speckled Shield Lichen) are considered sensitive. For more information, see Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America (Yale University Press, 2021).

[11] Kim M. Peterson, “Plants in Arctic Environments 13,” Ecology and the Environment (2014): 363, 379; Magdalena Wutkowska, Dorothee Ehrich, Sunil Mundra, Anna Vader, and Pernille Bronken Eidesen, “Can Root-Associated Fungi Mediate the Impact of Abiotic Conditions on the Growth of a High Arctic Herb?” Soil Biology and Biochemistry 159 (2021): 108284, 1.

[12] For extensive research on how different Indigenous communities engage with and name plants, see e.g. Nancy J. Turner, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014). Additional information can also be found in Andrew MacKinnon and Linda Kershaw, Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada (Lone Pine Publishing, 2014).

[13] Swales, “From the Outdoor Trail,” in A Fair Shake: Autobiographical Essays by McGill Women, 26.

[14] Orchids are considered mycoheterotrophic, a term that denotes the shared reciprocity between plants and fungi. For more information, see e.g. Marcin Jąkalski, Julita Minasiewicz, José Caius, Michał May, Marc-André Selosse, and Etienne Delannoy, “The Genomic Impact of Mycoheterotrophy in Orchids,” Frontiers in Plant Science 12 (2021): 632033; Vincent Merckx, Martin I. Bidartondo, and Nicole A. Hynson, “Myco-Heterotrophy: When Fungi Host Plants,” Annals of Botany 104, no. 7 (2009): 1255-1261, Richard P. Shefferson, D. Lee Taylor, Michael Weiß, Sigisfredo Garnica, Melissa K. McCormick, Seth Adams, Hope M. Gray et al. “The Evolutionary History of Mycorrhizal Specificity Among Lady’s Slipper Orchids,” Evolution 61, no. 6 (2007): 1380-1390.

[15] Joanne Marchand, personal correspondence with Dr. Swales (n.d.)

*Cover image: Showy Lady’s Sliepper, or Cypripedium reginae Walt, collected by Dr. Swales in June 1967.

[*Cover image description: a specimen collection shows a dried flattened flower pressed against a page labeled Macdonald College Herbarium. The flower shows spiney roots, wide green leaves, and a single orchid flower at the top, colored faint yellow.]

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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