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Tropical Botany in Exile. Mona Lisa Steiner (1915 - 2000): Scientific Continuities, Transfers and Practices in Austria and the Philippines

In 1938, the Austrian botanist Mona Lisa Steiner (1915-2000) fled to Manila to escape National Socialist persecution, where she managed to build up a new existence and to establish herself within a few years as an expert on the tropical flora of the Philippines. After her re-migration to Austria in 1965, Steiner described her escape to the Pacific island-nation as a botanical expedition, which resulted in the set-up of a research location in the tropics with corresponding national and international networks of communication and exchange of plant material.

Steiner's scientific biography is unique within the history of Austrian scientific exile, and at the same time in all its stages marked by the specific circumstances of contemporary history - of National Socialism, the Pacific theatre of WWII, decolonisation in the era of the Cold War, and Austria's neglect of its share in the racist and/or political persecution of citizens after the “Anschluß” up to the early 1970's.

The reconstruction of her scientific biography provides a fundamental insight into the Philippines as a little-studied country of exile. It also sheds light upon the means of escape and decision-making processes of a representative of a new generation of female scientists, upon the conditions of her survival and scientific, occupational and social integration into a tropical colonial island that had just been released into partial autonomy, and upon her possibilities for becoming established professionally in a postcolonial state. Finally, Steiner's scientific biography offers a linkage to a botanical network that enables an investigation of the circulation of scientific knowledge and objects in the context of botanical research in Southeast Asia in the central third of the 20th century, and as such an access to the phenomenon “tropical botany”.

Tropical botany from 1930 to 1960 was not only a descriptive science, which focused on the botany of tropical climatic or geographical areas, or on tropical or subtropical vegetation, which was mainly investigated with taxonomy-linked practices. It was also closely connected with (post-colonial) agricultural practices, geopolitical endeavours as well as military, medical and pharmaceutical interests. The central aim of the project is the reconstruction of the varying disciplines, agendas and foci involved in botanical research on tropical flora practiced in Austria and the Philippines in the middle of the 20th century.

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