Friday, 28 August 2020

Maude Delap, Valentia’s
home-grown, self-taught
marine biologist

A plaque in Knightstown recalls Maude Delap, Valentia’s self-taught marine biologist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

It is difficult on Valentia Island to escape the sense of local pride in the work and legacy of Maude Jane Delap (1866-1953) was a self-taught marine biologist who was the daughter of a local rector.

Maude Delap was the first person to breed jellyfish in captivity and to observe their full life cycle. She was also involved in extensive study of plankton from the coasts of Valentia Island.

Maude Delap was born in Templecrone Rectory, Co Donegal, on 7 December 1866, the seventh of ten children of the Revd Alexander Delap and Anna Jane (née Goslett). In 1874, when Maude was 8, the family moved to Valentia Island when her father became the Rector of the island and of Cahirciveen.

The family home was at Reenellen House in Knightstown, overlooking the coast and half-way between the harbour and the Church of Saint John the Evangelist.

Reenellen House in Knightstown was the Delap family home (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Maude and her sisters received very little formal education in contrast to their brothers, although they benefited from some progressive primary school teaching. Maude and her sister Constance were encouraged in their interest in zoology and biology by their father, who published papers in the Irish Naturalist and other journals.

Maude and Constance were prolific collectors of marine specimens many of which are now housed within the collections of the Natural History Museum, Dublin. A survey based on their work was undertaken by the Royal Irish Academy, headed by Edward T Browne of University College London in 1895 and 1896. This was a precursor to the Clare Island Survey.

After this collaboration, Maude and Constance Delap continued to collect specimens through dredging and tow-netting as well as recording sea temperature and changes in marine life. Maude kept in correspondence with Browne, sending specimens and drawings, until his death in 1937.

Maude Delap became increasingly interested in the life cycle of various species of jellyfish. She was the first person to successfully breed them in captivity in her home laboratory using home-made aquariums. She bred Chrysaora isosceles and Cyanea lamarckii in bell jars and published the results, observing their breeding and feeding habits.

It was because of her pioneering work that the various life cycle stages of different species of jellyfish was first identified.

Her laboratory was referred to as the department which her nephew, Peter Delap, described as an ‘heroic jumble of books, specimens, aquaria, with its pervasive low-tide smell.’

Due to her contributions to marine biology she was offered a position in 1906 in the Plymouth Marine Biological Station, she declined. Her father is said to have reacted by declaring, ‘No daughter of mine will leave home, except as a married woman.’

The Delap family grave in the churchyard at Saint John’s, Kilmore, outside Knightstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Her interest continued in many forms of flora and fauna, and she identified a True’s beaked whale that was washed up on the island. This whale species was previously only known from an incomplete specimen found in the US.

Maude Delap had a sea anemone named in her honour, Edwardsia delapiae, which she first recorded in eelgrass on the shores of Valentia Island. This anemone is found in shallow sea water and it is unknown outside Valentia Island. The naming had been suggested by Thomas Alan Stephenson in his book British sea anemones. Stephenson notes in his book that ‘Miss Delap's skill and persistence in collecting rare species are indefatigable.’

Delap was made an associate of the Linnean Society of London in 1936.

Maude Delap died on 23 July 1953. All her siblings had died before her, and she was buried alongside her parents and sisters in the churchyard at Saint John’s Church, Kilmore, the earlier Church of Ireland parish church outside Knightstown.

The family home at Reenellen House in Knightstown is now in ruins, behind protective fencing. But a plaque was erected to her nearby by the Irish National Committee for Commemorative Plaques in Science and Technology in 1998. She was also the subject of an art work by Dorothy Cross, exploring her life and work with scientists and artists of her day.

A plaque in the old churchyard at Kilmore commemorates Maude Delap (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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