Main Narrative » Women in Cryptogamic Botany

Elke Mackenzie (I.M. Lamb)

By Amanda M. Chandler, Greer Lowenstein

Mar 10 2022

The work and dedication of Elke Mackenzie (1911-1990) is critical to our understanding of Antarctic lichen communities, as well as the delightfully complex lichen genus Stereocaulon. Elke’s Antarctic interest developed while working with lichenologist Annie L. Smith at the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum), where she worked as Assistant Keeper of the Botany Department for over a decade (Ahmadjian 1991, BLS n.d., Imbler 2020, Llano 1991). Inspired by herbarium work, she then took on the roles of botanist and dog musher as part of a highly classified World War II expedition to Antarctica on behalf of the Royal Navy. During this time, she collected hundreds of specimens, discovered multiple new species, and kept detailed logs of the expedition (Ahmadjian 1991, BLS n.d., Imbler 2020). Following time spent at the National University of Tucumán and the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Nature), Mackenzie accepted the director position at the Farlow Herbarium in 1953 (Ahmadjian 1991, Imbler 2020, Llano 1991).

Though known as a lichenologist, Elke was also allured by phycological endeavors and spent much time familiarizing herself with both the lichen and algal collections at Farlow when she wasn’t visiting other herbaria to do the same. Antarctica would see her twice more during the 1960s, the second time leading a dive team on a study of her own idea to sample benthic marine algae (Ahmadjian 1991, BLS n.d., Llano 1991). Roused by this novel collecting approach, she continued to sample marine algae off the northern Atlantic coast of North America (BLS 2014).

Born Ivan Mackenzie Lamb, Elke openly transitioned in 1972 and so nearly all of her accomplishments are attributed to her former name, including multiple taxa and a cape in Antarctica (Cape Lamb) that were named in deference of her (BLS n.d., Imbler 2020). Within a year of changing her legal identity, she retired early at the request of her colleagues and continued avid study of Stereocaulon lichens (Imbler 2020). Despite unyielding dedication and effort, multiple circumstances throughout life prevented her from retaining the collected and composed materials necessary for the production of an exhaustive Stereocaulon monograph and accompanying exsiccatum collection (Ahmadjian 1991, Imbler 2020, Llano 1991). Nonetheless, her consistently meticulous approach to extensive taxonomic studies resulted in her proposal of appearance-based evolutionary groupings for Stereocaulon lichens that are still supported by molecular data today. After living for a time in Costa Rica and moving back to New England, Mackenzie was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which led to her passing in 1990 (Ahmadjian 1991, Imbler 2020, Llano 1991). Elke’s enthusiasm for cryptogams was as readily apparent as her encouraging and humble demeanor and she is remembered fondly by those who knew her.


Ahmadjian, V. 1991. Obituary: Ivan Mackenzie Lamb (Elke Mackenzie) (1911 – 1990). Lichenologist 23(1): 85 – 87.
Botany Libraries Staff, Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany. (n.d.). Elke Mackenzie papers, 1945 – 1977: A Guide (Biographical Note). Archives of the Farlow Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University. Retrieved from:
Imbler, S. (2020, September 26). The Unsung Heroine of Lichenology. JSTOR Daily. Retrieved from:
Llano, G.A. 1991. I. Mackenzie Lamb, D.Sc. (Elke Mackenzie) (1911 – 1990). The Bryologist 94(3): 315 – 320.