Story: Mason, Ruth
This biography was written by A. D. Thomson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Ruth Mason was born in Auckland on 7 November 1913, the eldest of four children of Dulcia Martina Rockell and her husband, Henry Greathead Rex Mason, a solicitor. Rex was active in the early days of the New Zealand Labour Party and later became a Labour cabinet minister. Ruth lived in Pukekohe until 1923, when her family moved to Epsom, Auckland. She attended St Cuthbert’s College as a day pupil, and left as dux in 1930 to study at Auckland University College. She graduated BA in 1934 and BSc in 1937. Her interests by this time were firmly focused on botany, and she went on to complete her MSc in this subject, graduating in 1938. Like many other biology students at Auckland who became leading scientists, she was a keen member of the Auckland University Field Club. The club provided the opportunity to combine outdoor activities, such as tramping and camping, with the study of natural history.
In 1939, after spending a year at Auckland Training College, Ruth Mason accepted a position as assistant botanist in the DSIR’s Botany Division in Wellington. Her first scientific task was to establish a seed herbarium, and she became a pioneer in New Zealand in the study of seeds. The collection provided an aid to taxonomy, and her work assisted research into the gut contents of animals and provided key data on the food preferences of feral animal pests, including the possum. In 1940 she identified seeds recovered from a moa gizzard at Pyramid Valley, North Canterbury, and in 1949 participated in the New Zealand – American Fiordland Expedition.
Another of Mason’s wartime projects, and her first major research, was an anatomical investigation of linen flax with soil scientist J. D. Raeside. It was a study of fibre quality in relation to soil type, and the results led to her earliest significant scientific publication. During this project she lived in Timaru and in her spare time conducted a botanical study of the surrounding area, including the Washdyke Lagoon. Her chief research interest, the taxonomy and ecology of water plants (for which she is perhaps best known), emerged from this early exploration.
In 1949 Ruth Mason began a series of at least 15 expeditions throughout New Zealand to collect wetland species. Over approximately two decades she devised various handling and drying techniques and collected and documented some 13,500 specimens, including a number from Australia in 1955 and from Nepal in 1972. She constantly strove to clarify the taxonomy of the plants she studied, and this became an essential component of her water-plant field work. She was the first to record Wolffia in 1949, and realised that the taxonomy of another genus, Callitriche , was confused. She moved from Wellington to Christchurch with the Botany Division in 1954, and when it shifted to Lincoln in May 1960 she took up residence in Prebbleton. Throughout her career she wrote numerous articles and reports.
Mason’s special interest in field botany strengthened her dedication to environmental science and conservation. She was a foundation member of the New Zealand Limnological and Canterbury Botanical societies, as well as the New Zealand Ecological Society, to which she was elected an honorary life member in May 1974, four months after her official retirement. She also had various interests outside science. She was a member of the Wellington and Christchurch Chamber Music societies and was active in the Tararua Tramping Club, editing its journal (1945–49) and serving as vice president (1949–52). Fascinated by words, especially their early usage and those used by trampers, she corresponded with lexicographer H. W. Orsman. In her later years she supported many community organisations, particularly UNICEF. She never married.
A long-time friend and colleague of Ruth Mason described her as a loyal, quiet person whose opinion was widely respected, as a fine botanist and lexicographer, and as a woman who was always true to her ideals. A tireless and meticulous worker, she died on 14 May 1990 in Christchurch from injuries sustained when struck by a car on a pedestrian crossing near her home at Prebbleton.