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Adams, Nancy Mary

by Kate Hannah


Nancy Adams was a botanist, botanical artist and museum curator whose significant contributions to botany included the illustrations for more than 40 publications on New Zealand’s native plants, alpine areas, and common trees, shrubs and flowers, and her 1994 work Seaweeds of New Zealand: an illustrated guide. Her botanical illustrations are familiar to generations of New Zealanders, and her books remain valuable guides for New Zealand flora enthusiasts and gardeners.

Early life

Jacqueline Nancy Mary Adams was born in Levin on 19 May 1926, the daughter of Jessie Whittaker and her husband, Kenneth Ernest Adams. Kenneth, a solicitor, was a grandson of the noted early amateur botanist James Adams. Nancy grew up with a love for plants and a talent for drawing. ‘Right from the time I was very small, I knew somebody did the plant drawings in books. That’s what I wanted to do.’1 Her father and grandfather took Nancy on long bush walks in the Coromandel Range, and Nancy’s mother encouraged her daughter’s interests.

Nancy’s parents separated when she was very young. She grew up in Wellington in the busy home of her maternal grandparents, the proprietors of the Whittaker’s chocolate company, and attended Brooklyn School. Principal William Martin was a keen amateur botanist who instructed pupils in drawing from nature and took groups to the Wellington Botanical Gardens to observe and draw. Nancy’s early drawings reveal an eye for botanical detail as well as a keen sense of perspective. They include charming portraits as well as sketches of animals and plants.

Secondary schooling and art training

Nancy attended Wellington Girls’ College, where she was fortunate to have an excellent art teacher, Lucy Benham, and to take additional art classes with Wellington Technical College School of Art tutor Fred Ellis and landscape painter Reginald J. Waghorn. Her early drawings show a remarkable eye for colour and detail, as well as a delight in the principles of design. The sketchbooks and notebooks which Nancy kept all her life document her constant observation of her environment, and her knowledge of landscapes and botany.

Though Nancy had enrolled to study zoology and botany at Victoria University College, a period of ill-health prevented her from completing these courses. She was appointed to a role at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in January 1943, when she was 16; the department was looking for staff to replace men serving in the armed forces. She was one of a number of young women who entered the scientific workforce at this time. As a general technician in the Botany Division, she undertook support work for the senior scientists and was exposed to seaweed research for the first time, working with Dr Lucy Moore.

Developing career and skills

Nancy’s knowledge of plants and skills in observation, honed during her childhood, were further extended in her practice as a technician – she said, of seaweed, that she would check sacks of samples ‘for things like the proportion of sexual to asexual plants in the sample. It wasn’t difficult once you knew what you were looking for.’2 Her observational and artistic skills were apparent, and the DSIR appointed her as an illustrator in 1950 and a botanical artist in 1953, doing all the drawings for the Botany Division. Nancy’s expertise in botanical illustration, which required detailed knowledge of plants, enabled her and the scientists she worked with to better distinguish, classify, and study the diversity of New Zealand’s native flora.

Nancy moved to Christchurch with the DSIR in the 1950s, but returned to Wellington in 1959 to take up a new position as artist at the Dominion Museum. Her initial work was varied, and she became familiar with the breadth of the museum’s collections, particularly the historic botanical archives. This research enabled her to establish the origins of specimens collected by the nineteenth-century New Zealand botanist John Buchanan, and correct errors made by earlier researchers. She continued to research and publish works of botanical history and biography throughout her career, including articles on Buchanan’s collecting, and the life and collections of her great-grandfather, James Adams.

The Dominion Museum gave Nancy access to the national botanical collections and archives, and collaborators from the wider New Zealand botany community, which enabled her to produce the reference works which are her significant contributions to science. In 1963, both Plants of the New Zealand coast (with Lucy Moore) and Trees and shrubs of New Zealand (with Alick Poole) were published, the culmination of many years of work in the field, the archives, and the studio. Her major contributions to botany and conservation were acknowledged the following year when she was awarded the Loder Cup for services to flora conservation, specifically her drawings and illustrations for the Department of Conservation’s National Park handbooks and pamphlets.

As a botanical artist, Nancy contributed works in a variety of media – watercolour, pen and ink, linocuts – for inclusion in or to illustrate the covers of more than 40 botanical or related texts. Science historian Andrew Thomson observed that Nancy’s art ‘has done much to increase popular knowledge of the New Zealand flora and to emphasize its attractiveness’.3 Her contributions to botanical science, particularly botanical systematics – the naming and classifying of plants – continued to develop after she moved to a more specialised role in marine botany in 1969. It was unusual for a person without university qualifications, especially a woman, to take up a specialist scientific role, but Nancy was actively engaged in learning throughout her career and was able to make the transition from artist to curator. She was appointed Assistant Curator of Botany, transferring into the museum’s herbarium and charged with building a reference collection with a specific focus on the curation of algae and seaweed. She collaborated with Alan Mark on New Zealand alpine plants, published in 1973, the beginning of her publications in the subfield of phycology. Her expertise in the handling, identification and study of seaweed, algae and moss, honed through observation, fieldwork and practice, led to her promotion to a scientist role in 1985.

Her diverse later artworks, which range from the scientific drawings and illustrations of her publications to landscapes, sketches, and a number of linocuts and etchings used for book covers and greeting cards, reveal that the eye for colour and design, so notable in her early sketches and drawings, remained a feature of her artistic practice throughout her working life.

Personal life

Nancy had a wide circle of close colleagues and friends, and was welcomed by many families on holidays and on significant family occasions. Sometimes perceived as stern, she was kindly and had a wicked sense of humour, and enjoyed the company of others. With her long dark hair pulled back into a low bun, Nancy was always stylishly dressed, with an affection for colour and pattern. She never married; a relationship with an American serviceman during the war ended with his death, and her engagement to a young doctor also ended tragically when he was killed assisting at the scene of a car accident. Her mother, Jessie, lived with Nancy at her Wellington home until Jessie’s death, and their relationship was close.

Later life

Nancy Adams remained at the Dominion Museum until her retirement in 1987, aged 60, after which she continued to research, write and publish on botanical topics. She remained an Honorary Research Associate at the museum (later Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand) until her final illness. She was made a member of the Queen’s Service Order in 1989 and received a New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal. Her contributions to botany are commemorated in the naming of a genus of marine algae, Adamsiella, as well as in the species name Lessonia adamsiae.

In 1994 Nancy published Seaweeds of New Zealand: an illustrated guide, her most important contribution to New Zealand botany. This book showcased both her extensive and specialised botanical knowledge and her skill in depicting algae and seaweed, and described more than 600 different species, with detailed illustrations for 441. In 1995 she was appointed CBE for her services to botany.

Nancy’s retirement was marked by a major exhibition of her artworks at Te Papa Tongarewa in 1987, and a second exhibition of her botanical drawings toured the country between 2003 and 2006. In 2006, Te Papa Tongarewa acquired a substantial collection of watercolours, drawings, sketchbooks, field notes, photographs, and ephemera from her. The museum was keen to preserve this significant archive, which includes the original illustrations for many of Adams’ major works. Nancy Adams died at the Huntleigh Hospital in Karori, Wellington on 27 March 2007, aged 80.

  1. Paula Martin. Lives with science: profiles of senior New Zealand women in science. Wellington, 1993, p.46 Back
  2. Martin, Lives with science, p.47. Back
  3. Andrew Thomson, Women in science botany (a), MS papers 7617-04 (1993-2000), Alexander Turnbull Library, p.453 Back

Links and sources


    Nancy Adams papers, CA000888, Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa.

    Martin, Paula. Lives with science: profiles of senior women in New Zealand science. Wellington, 1993.

    Ferguson, Ross. Obituary. New Zealand Garden Journal 10 n.1 (2007), pp.25-26.

    Thomson, Andrew. Women in science botany (a), MS papers 7617-04 (1993-2000), Alexander Turnbull Library.

How to cite this page:

Kate Hannah. 'Adams, Nancy Mary', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)