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Finding Maude Delap

I’ve always had a fascination with the strange and unknown. It’s what drew me to study marine biology. The fact that world’s oceans accounts for 70.8% of the earth’s surface and yet still more than 80% of the oceans remain unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored mystified me. I always felt so compelled when scientists spoke about how little we humans know about the sea and its abyssal depths. I have always been fascinated by the natural world and the outdoors and at 17, I began studying wildlife biology, which lead me to studying many different types of habitats, plants and animals. I was tempted by many different interests during this time, but it was the mystery of the ocean that captivated me. I like to say it was the “call of the sea” that led me from my home in Kerry to pursue a master’s degree in marine biology at University College Cork. While all my colleagues were interested in studying dolphins, whales, and sharks, I was always captivated by the more unusual species and environments. I loved learning about the things we know very little about and the things which looked bizarre and strange.

LIVE Knowledge Gatherer Jane Sheehan
LIVE Knowledge Gatherer Jane Sheehan

Most of all, it was the jellyfish which captured my interest. It wasn’t long into studying marine biology that I realised that if I could do anything for the rest of my life it would be to research jellyfish. And as luck would have it, I began studying jellyfish as part of my project for my master’s degree. It felt like an honour, as ever since I was young, I’ve always found jellyfish weirdly wonderful. I often use to wade out into the water as a child, pretending that every single seaweed which ensnared my feet was actually in-fact a Lion’s Mane Jellyfish ready to attack. I remember the delight of seeing the little Moon Jellyfish washed up on the beach, poking them with my toes and running away with feigned horror giggling and screaming with glee. I was amazed at their very concept. No head, no heart, no blood, no brain and yet there they were swimming about and functioning all while being so beautiful and mesmerising. I loved to press my face against glass of aquarium tanks filled with sea nettles and moon jellies. I could watch them for hours, swirling in absolute tranquillity. Even now as an adult, I still like to curl up on the couch and watch live streams of jellyfish tanks from aquariums around the world. I find them incredibly soothing.

Back many years ago, when I first heard of Ireland having its very own pioneer jellyfish researcher, I was completely taken aback; I was born in Kerry and grew up there and yet I had never heard about her. How had I gone all this time without knowing about her? She seemed too monumental for me to have never heard about up until then. Why weren’t we taught about her in school? I felt compelled to learn more about Maude Delap. I began scouring the internet trying to find out as much about this woman as I could. Of course, within a few minutes of searching, I discovered that she is, of course, celebrated on Valentia Island and among the surrounding Iveragh communities. Artists, authors and poets and journalists had even been documenting her legacy throughout the last few years. I learned that she is still acknowledged to this day within the jellyfish research community, both in Ireland, and worldwide. In fact, her work is still cited and helped build much of our knowledge surrounding jellyfish. Yet, despite reading all this, I still felt she was something worth celebrating on a larger scale within Ireland. I felt like the people of Kerry needed to know more about her.

On my personal quest to find out more about her, I learned that Maude Delap was a true naturalist. She was born in 1866 and moved to Valentia Island when she was 8 years old. Due to her gender, she was not sent to school. Formal education was something only the men of the Delap family got to indulge in at the time. Despite being home-schooled, she devoted her whole life to learning more about her surrounding natural environment and the species which inhabited it. Maude and her sister Constance used to row about the harbour and waters surrounding Valentia Island towing a net. The tow-net collected marine animals from the water which Maude proceeded to bring back to her laboratory, fondly called “The Department”, where she identified and recorded them. She helped carry out extensive plankton work within Valentia Harbour, collecting and identifying microscopic organisms which she must have spent hours watching under her famed golden microscope. She collaborated with marine biologists working at Plymouth Marine Biological Station and University College London and helped them build a profile of the plankton communities on Valentia.

Portrait of a young Maude Delap (Credit: Valentia Island Heritage Centre)
Portrait of a young Maude Delap (Credit: Valentia Island Heritage Centre)

From carrying out in-depth studies on plankton, Maude became very interested in the jellyfish species. I like to think she felt drawn to them the same way I do. This interest spurred her to begin collecting jellyfish by hand and returning them to aquariums and bell jars to rear and study. Delap routinely changed the sea water in the tanks and collected different species of plankton to feed the jellyfish. She observed the many different stages of the jellyfish life cycle and made notes on them. She was the first person in the world to have reared jellyfish and observed their full reproductive cycle successfully. Delap made wonderful sketches of the different jellyfish stages and species. This research was published in several journals, such as the Irish Naturalist.

"No daughter of mine will leave home, except as a married woman”.

This research was monumental and has since contributed to much of what we know about the jellyfish life cycles. The research gained her interest within the scientific community and Plymouth Marine Biological Station reached out to offer her a fellowship in 1906. This was a significant honour. However, her father refused her offer reportedly stating, “No daughter of mine will leave home, except as a married woman”. Unfortunately, despite her great skill and passion, patriarchal values were still at large. She obeyed her father's wishes and stayed on Valentia Island where she continued her research, recording changes in wildlife and submitting specimens to the Natural History Museum, until her death in 1953.

Her story struck a chord within me. I could not stop thinking about it all. There she was a woman living remotely on the most westerly island off Ireland. In place you typically would consider to be cut-off from the world of ground-breaking scientific discoveries. She had no formal education due to her gender. She had no access to the fancy laboratories or equipment you would find in a marine biological station at that time. Yet, despite it all, she persevered and continued to carry out the research which she was passionate about. She instantly became an inspiration to me. This wild westerly woman going against all odds and expectations and devoting her life to jellyfish. Carrying out incredible science in a time where women were dissuaded from doing so. An inspiration for women in STEM and someone who needs to be celebrated at a wider scale.

Yet, there are still gaps in information surrounding her. Many of her records and archives still exist within different colleges and institutions both in England and Ireland but their contents have not been fully catalogued and published yet. The fact that there is no definite collection which compiles all the available information about her could be a big part of why she isn’t more well known throughout Ireland. As part of my role as a Knowledge Gather for LIVE, the Llŷn Iveragh Ecomuseum Project, I plan to reach out to these colleges and institutions and view these remaining archives. I hope to contact those who may have information or knowledge surrounding Maude Delap or have information they think would be valuable to her story. I plan to gather this research, along with the existing and available research, and bring it to the public and local communities. The work she carried out was truly ground-breaking and I hope to summarise her scientific findings and make them understandable and accessible for people. By understanding the importance of jellyfish and plankton within our marine ecosystem, we can truly appreciate the work she carried out.

This is where you can really help. If you have any stories, images, or even memories of Maude Delap, please reach out to the LIVE project. Any information you think might be helpful this research, would be incredibly beneficial to me, and to the heritage of Maude Delap. She was a trailblazer and a true inspiration to all. By learning more about her, we can help protect her legacy and celebrate her work to its true extent.

Further Reading

More information about Jane's research can be found on our webpage - Finding Maude Delap

Daily Updates

If you would like to see daily updates on Maude Delap, follow the hashtag #FindingMaudeDelap on twitter, where our Knowledge Gatherer Jane posts new information she uncovers on Maude’s life.

Twitter - SaltySeaSoup

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