Born in 1886 in Lobnik pri Železni Kapli (Carinthia); died in 1967 in Ljubljana. Botanist, museologist, and pedagogue, the first* Slovenian woman PhD holder and environmentalist.
Angela Piskernik received her education at the Ursuline Convent in Klagenfurt, then attended the 1st State Grammar School in Graz before continuing her studies at the University of Vienna, an exceptional achievement for a woman at the time. Even though she obtained a PhD in botany and dedicated a substantial part of her life to natural sciences, she was also a gifted writer. Her path would always take her elsewhere, but she held onto writing her whole life, particularly in the most dangerous of times.
Angela Piskernik was much more than a botanist: she never shut herself in the ivory tower of her science but was always socially engaged. In 1912, she held a public lecture entitled Žena, nje lastnosti, pravice in dolžnosti (Woman, Her Qualities, Rights, and Duties), in which she advocated for a woman’s right to a place in public life, wishing to see women holding ministerial posts during her lifetime.
After World War I, she herself entered public life and became an active political agitator for the region of Carinthia, then divided between two newly-formed countries, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and the Republic of Austria. She believed in annexation to the Yugoslavian nations, but imperialist tendencies along with a politicised plebiscite led to a different result. Before the plebiscite, she held lectures, wrote texts, made political alliances, and wholly dedicated herself to this project, but unfortunately to no avail. Between the wars, she worked at the Museum of Natural History in Ljubljana, then became a secondary school teacher. Despite her doctoral degree and early academic efforts, she never managed to break into the exclusively male world of academia. “No one stood in my way during my studies,” she said in a 1927 interview for the Slovenec newspaper, “that came later when I went to work in Ljubljana. Those were difficult times but I don’t regret them today: they have made me very cautious in terms of expressing my faith in men, but have also given me faith in myself, which I never had before. I used to find it very difficult to be ‘only a woman’, but my work experiences have freed me from this error, and today I am proud to be a woman.”
Angela Piskernik was much more than a botanist: she never shut herself in the ivory tower of her science but was always socially engaged.
But professional struggles were not the most difficult challenge she would have to face. The biggest test came with the outbreak of World War II. In November 1943, she was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she remained until July 1945. The guards would humiliate her and make fun of her PhD title (what good will it do when you find yourself on the edge of survival?), friends would die before her eyes, she was tortured and barely escaped with her life. In order to survive, to keep herself busy, forget hunger for a little while, she wrote a cookbook with her fellow prisoners. The women alleviated their hunger by telling stories and writing, reminiscing about the days when the world had seemed normal and manageable. The cookbook contained recipes from women of various ethnicities and classes and was, despite the exceptional circumstances in which it was written, organised in a nearly scientific manner. Regardless of the harsh conditions and the type of book being written, Angela Piskernik remained committed to the scientific apparatus.
After the war, she became the Director of the Museum of Natural History; one of the first women to head a public establishment in the Slovenian lands. She started focusing on the preservation of natural heritage. She is responsible for the protection of numerous endangered plant- and animal species and the restoration of the Alpine Botanical Garden Juliana in Trenta, a natural monument of world renown. She can also be credited with preserving the Krakovo primeval forest and the Rak Škocjan Park as well as with the establishment of the Triglav Natural Park.
She died in December 1967. A sheet of paper was found in her typewriter. She wrote and worked to the day she died.
*Recent reseach shows that Angela Piskernik was not the 1st Slovenian woman PhD holder; the 1st one was Ana Jenko, married Štěrba-Böhm (1885-1936) who recieved her PhD in chemistry in 1911. Source: Petrič, Iztok, Jareš, Jakub, Iglič, Aleš. “Ana Jenko Štěrba-Böhm (1885-1936), prva Slovenka z doktoratom iz kemije.” Acta chimica slovenica, vol. 62., issue 4 (2015), pp. 140-144.
Alpine Botanical Garden Juliana
Juliana is the oldest Alpine botanical garden in a natural environment in Slovenian territory. About 600 different plant species prosper in the garden. It is located in the Triglav National Park close to the hamlet of Pri Cerkvi overlooking the road connecting Kranjska Gora and Bovec. The botanical garden is not accessible for persons with reduced mobility.