Dr Kathleen Curtis
Pioneering plant scientist
1892 - 1994

Pioneering scientist and the first female fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand

Dr Kathleen Curtis was a world-class scientist who founded modern plant pathology in New Zealand.

Curtis (known as Lady Rigg in later life) also discovered a previously unknown fungus, a truffle-like puffball, beside a track in the hills behind Nelson, the city where she spent most of her life.

After establishing a glittering academic record at universities and colleges in Auckland and London, Curtis was hired as a foundation staff member at Nelson's Cawthron Institute in 1920. She worked there for her entire career, finishing in 1952.

In 1919, she was the first New Zealand woman to be awarded a doctor of science degree - from the University of London. In 1936, she was the first woman to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.


She published numerous academic papers and advised the farmers, foresters and orchardists of Nelson about how to deal with fungal diseases.

But her interests were broader than science, drawing her into an active role in organisations pursuing equality for women.

Her contemporaries described her as being determined that women should play their part in the community.

She attended the first meeting of the Nelson branch of the NZ Federation of University Women in 1944 and was branch president from 1954 to 1956.

She was the driving force behind the federation joining the National Council of Women and through the council pushing for women's service on court juries to be on the same footing as men's service. This was the subject of a vigorous campaign in the late-50s, but equality wasn't achieved until 1976.

In 1966, aged 74, Curtis married former Cawthron director Sir Theodore Rigg.