Skip to content

Dr. Lulu Odell Gaiser’s Impact on Botany and Beyond at RBG

February 9, 2024

By Dr. David Galbraith, Director of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens

Notable women have been pioneers in many scientific fields, including Lulu Odell Gaiser (1896-1965). Lulu brought a passion for plants and for teaching to her ground-breaking work as a professor at both Harvard and McMaster Universities. In fact, Dr. Gaiser was the first woman faculty member at McMaster, and she was influential in the first field botany project at Royal Botanical Gardens too. Initially she studied to be a teacher, studying at University of Western Ontario and Toronto’s College of Education.

Lulu started her teaching and research activities in New York early in the 20th Century. She was an assistant in the botany department of Columbia University in 1921. She joined the United Stages Department of Agriculture in 1924 as a junior pathologist, studying plant diseases. Her association with McMaster University began in 1925 as a lecturer when McMaster was still based in Toronto. She moved to Hamilton when McMaster opened the campus there in 1930, and eventually was named senior professor of botany and research in 1949. When she joined McMaster the head of biology, Dr. Roger Smith, complained that she was “the first invasion of McMaster’s faculty by a woman.” Her final research post was as an assistant of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University.

It was in botany that Dr. Gaiser also had an early role at Royal Botanical Gardens. In 1932 one of her students, Harold Senn, was hired by the City of Hamilton’s Board of Park Management to survey the trees of Westdale Ravine and the south shore of Cootes Paradise Marsh. At that time the south shore was the only area identified as RBG, the land was owned by the city, and the park board undertook all management. RBG didn’t get its own staff until the mid-1940s. Senn’s survey was intended to help prepare interpretation and educational opportunities in the forest. He identified hundreds of individual trees from dozens of species, and also prepared ceramic plant labels identifying the species in hand-written script. With Dr. Gaiser’s direction Harold produced an extensive written report on his findings, not only listing the trees along the trails but discussing the potential for the area to serve as a botanical garden.

Dr. Gaiser eventually retired from teaching and research, and moved back to her home in Crediton, Ontario in 1954 to care for her father. She had made ground-breaking advances in several fields, in particular using the appearance of chromosomes to identify species of plants, or cytotaxonomy, and to better understand patterns of inheritance, called cytogenetics. Dr. Gaiser was in fact the first Canadian researcher to publish in the field of cytogenetics.

Learn more about science at RBG and how we have been part of exciting discoveries in botany, ecology, and related fields since the 1940s.

Lulu Odell Gaiser portrait
Courtesy of the Royal Botanical Gardens Archives.

More from the RBG Blog

Check out RBG’s blog for announcements, articles, and more from Canada’s largest botanical garden.

Want to be sure you hear first? Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter to hear about upcoming events, weekend activities, articles, and more!