The Medals of Rosemary Lowe-McConnell

Curator of Artefacts Glenn Benson takes a look at three recent and invaluable donations to the Society's collections

Published on 1st November 2021

It is said of London’s buses that they often turn up in threes, and the same can be said of our latest 'Treasure of the Month'. We are honoured to have been bequeathed three medals awarded to Rosemary Helen Lowe-McConnell (1921–2014), FLS since 1967, and Vice-President of the Society in 1976–77. 'Ro', as she was affectionately known, had a long and distinguished career in ichthyology, ecology, and limnology.

Ro was a celebrated scientist, whose love of nature and adventurous spirit was evident from childhood. Originally from Liverpool, she grew up close to the River Mersey and would go on to gain a degree in botany and zoology at Liverpool University. From there she went to the Lake District, where she worked at the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) on the shore of Lake Windermere, on projects focussed on increasing war time food supplies from freshwater sources.

Though her initial step into ichthyology was as a result of the Colonial Service refusing to employ female entomologists, she would go on to realise her childhood dream of going to Africa in 1945, to continue work on a fishery survey on what is now Lake Malawi. Here she would study cichlids as a local food source, and work towards developing a sustainable fishery programme. Her studies would continue in 1948 on the cichlids 'tilapia', where Ro's research would be the basis of further fishery studies in tropical regions, particularly in developing nations, where tilapia are still a major food source today. Throughout her career Ro would contribute to many global conferences, and would go on to publish her experiences in her book The Tilapia Trail, which she launched at the Linnean Society in July 2006.


Ro Lowe-McConnell at the launch of her book The Tilapia Trail at the Linnean Society.

First of a Triple Treasure: The Linnean Medal

Lowe-McConnell Linnean Medal

In 1997, Ro was awarded the Linnean Medal for Zoology, in recognition of her studies in freshwater fish in Africa and South America. The Linnean Medal was first awarded at the Linnean Society’s Anniversary Meeting on 24 May 1888, marking the centenary of the Society’s foundation. Held in the Library, it was also the first Anniversary Meeting to which women had been permitted to attend, a row of chairs having been placed for their use in the 'front gallery'. The Society's Proceedings (1887–88) outline and record the terms and conditions of the newly-proposed medal:

It shall be of gold [this was the case until 1976, after which the medals were made of an alloy], and cost no less than £14 [around £1,800 in today’s money] and awarded in its first year to both a botanist and a zoologist, and in future years to a botanist and a zoologist alternatively.

The engraving of the portrait of Carl Linnaeus for the obverse of the medal fell to Charles Anderson Ferrier (1829–1908) FLS (1882), who was described by famed wood engravers George and Edward Dalziel (1815–1902 and 1817–1905, respectively) as 'one of the most remarkable men who had their beginning as pupils in our Studio'. The medal itself was made, and continues to be made, by the company John Pinches Medallists (founded 1840).

The first Linnean Medals were awarded to botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), and to Sir Richard Owen (1804–92), biologist and palaeontologist. The medal has been awarded every year since, except during the years 1942–45, due to the Second World War.

Nominations for the Linnean Medal 2022 close on 30 November, so there is just enough time for you to nominate the next deserving recipient.

Fisheries Science: The Beverton Medal

Lowe McConnell Beverton medal

The second of the three medals is the silver Beverton Medal, presented to Ro in 2000 by the Fisheries Society of the British Isles (FSBI), a learned society founded in 1967 that 'supports scientific activity in fish biology and management'. The Beverton Medal is awarded annually to recognise 'lifelong contribution to all aspects of the study of fish biology and/or fisheries science, with a focus on ground-breaking research'.

Named after Raymond (Ray) Beverton CBE (1922–95), the first recipient and a pioneer of fisheries science, the obverse features the larval stage of a fish; a logo designed in the late-1960s by Lionel Mawdesley-Thomas (1931–74, one of the founders of the FSBI), and used on the cover of early editions of the Journal of Fish Biology.

Limnology: The Naumann-Thienemann Medal

Loew McConnell Nauman-Thienemann medal

The third award is the bronze Naumann-Thienemann Medal, awarded to Ro in 1995 by the International Society of Limnology (SIL). It is named after the limnologists Einar Christian Leonard Naumann (1891–1934) and August Friederich Thienemann (1882–1960), who co-founded SIL in 1922.

It is the oldest, and only international society, devoted to inland waters. Originally called the Einar Naumann Medal, it was first awarded in 1948; in 1972, Thienemann's contribution was recognised and his name was added to the award.

An Invaluable Donation

These three prestigious medals awarded to Rosemary Lowe-McConnell demonstrate the esteem in which she and her work were held professionally. Reading about her life, it is obvious that people who were lucky enough to work with her had, and continue to have, very warm memories of her personally too. Her achievements are all the more admirable when you realise she was a female scientist in a time where that alone could be an obstacle. When she married in 1953, she had to resign in line with the company's 'marriage bar' for women. After having initially been told the Colonial Service would not hire a female entomologist, a female friend of hers would later be hired due to Ro's successful work in ichthyology, as nothing 'untoward had happened as a result of appointing a female'. While unbelievable, it makes the donation of these medals all the more important and valuable to the Linnean Society's collections.

Medals can seem cold, inanimate trinkets, but behind each one are very human stories of why they were created, who they commemorate, and the hard work and achievements of those to whom they've been awarded. The Society is grateful for the kind donation of Ro’s medals to our collection and the legacy she left us. I leave you with her own words:

I’m leaving a legacy to the Linnean Society because I know I can trust them to use it sensibly for things that I consider important and worthwhile.

Glenn Benson, Hon. Curator of Artefacts

Information about leaving a legacy to the Society is here Leave a Legacy | The Linnean Society

Our policies on donations of items to the Society’s collections are here: Donations and Acquisitions | The Linnean Society