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Elke Mackenzie (1911-1990)

In LGBT+ History Month, we look at the life and work of Elke Mackenzie, known as I.M. Lamb within the field of botany. She specialised in lichenology and was noted for fruitful polar explorations and various influential publications.

Elke Mackenzie in 1947
Elke Mackenzie in 1947

Early years

Mackenzie was born Ivan Mackenzie Lamb in London on 10 September 1911 and moved with her family to Scotland while she was a child. She was enrolled in Edinburgh Academy and after graduating there in 1929 went on to study Botany at the University of Edinburgh.

At Edinburgh she received her BSc in 1933, and later her doctorate in 1943. Her thesis was a monograph of the lichen genus Placopsis.


From 1935-1946, Mackenzie was in charge of the lichen herbarium at the British Natural History Museum, and during World War II, she served as botanist, dog-driver and surveyor's assistant during a British expedition, Operation Tabarin, to the Falkland Islands and Antarctica.

Photos show British sailors' during their top secret WWII mission to Antarctica (external - Daily Mail)

In 1947 she accepted a position as Professor of Cryptogamic Botany at the University of Tucuman, Argentina before becoming curator of cryptogams at the National Museum of Canada at Ottawa in 1950, and Director of the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard University in 1953, a position that she held until her retirement in 1972.

She was elected an Honorary member of the British Lichen Society in 1974.


Through her various roles, Mackenzie travelled the world extensively to visit lichenologists, herbaria and to collect. In 1961 she visited McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, at the request of the National Science Foundation, to inspect the biological work and facilities there. She then visited Argentina, making excursions through the mountains of Tucuman and Salta provinces to collect Stereocaulon material, and to Puerto Deseado on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia to make a representative collection of marine algae for the Farlow.

In 1964, Mackenzie returned to Antarctica, to spend a summer at the Melchoir Islands studying the sublittoral marine algae. 'Operation Gooseflesh', as it was named by Mackenzie, saw a group of researchers taking 32 dives and collecting approximately 500 specimens of marine algae, all of which were examined and photographed in their living state.

During this trip, Mackenzie also collected and studied Verrucaria serpuloides, the only known permanently submerged marine lichen, which she had previously discovered in 1944.

Gender identity

In 1971, Mackenzie was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, underwent a sex reassignment surgery, and renamed herself Elke Mackenzie. Mackenzie retired from the Farlow Herbarium in 1973. During the next six years, Mackenzie lost interest in her botany work, preferring to translate German botanical text books into English. She constructed a bungalow in Costa Rica, and moved there in 1976.

In 1980, Mackenzie returned to Cambridge to live with her daughter, due to political unrest, and took up woodworking. She was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1983.

Elke Mackenzie died in 1990.

Additional sources

Elke Mackenzie - Wikipedia entry (external)

Obituary in the Lichenologist (pdf)