In this installment of the women’s empowerment series, we introduce three phenomenal Armenian women who, through their strong work ethic and intelligence, changed the world of science and left their indelible mark on history, contributing to major events, discoveries, research and technological advancements. They have remained largely unrecognized until now.
Born in 1854 as a second-generation Singapore resident of Armenian descent, Ashkhen Hovakimian, also known as Agnes Joaquim, became a leading horticulturist and triumphantly created the flower that later became Singapore’s national flower.
Hovakimian was the oldest of 11 children and the daughter of Parsick Joaquim who was an Armenian merchant and commercial agent. He married Hovakimian’s mother Urelia Zachariah in 1852. Believed to have come originally from Madras, his job as a commercial agent often led to travel to Calcutta, Batavia and Penang. As a well-known philanthropist, he obtained a variety of properties and investments. He passed away in 1872.
Clearly, Hovakimian’s discovery of horticulture and botany as a child stemmed from her family’s appreciation for it. Her father was a board member of the Singapore Botanic Gardens and her mother was a gardening enthusiast and was awarded prizes at annual flower shows throughout the 1800s.
As a horticulturist, Hovakimian regulated a variety of scientific experiments, which aided in creating the world’s first hybrid orchid in 1893. The discovery of this orchid helped create the cut flower industry in Singapore. Hovakimian cut from one of her original plants, which resulted in millions of flowers. Almost 100 years later in 1981, her flower creation was selected as the national flower of Singapore. Images of it can be found on coins, emblems, paintings, clothes, tattoos, souvenirs, buildings and gold bars. As a response to her remarkable creation, Hovakimian was admitted to the Women’s Hall of Fame in Singapore in 2015, a recognition that came more than 115 years after her death.
She presented her plant to Henry Ridley, Singapore’s Botanic Gardens Director. Her plant, the Vanda— also known as “Miss Joaquim”—was a mix between the Burmese and Malay orchids. It was the first ever hybrid orchid created.
Singaporeans were unaware of Hovakimian’s ethnicity, explaining why her orchid was placed under her altered name, Agnes Joaquim. Under British colonialism, many Armenians often took British names, hence the orchid was named “Vanda Miss Agnes Joaquim.”
Despite being an accomplished and exceptional horticulturist during her short lifetime, she was accused of falsifying the origin of her orchid. Her efforts and successes were often doubted and harshly judged by a world that was dominated by men at the time, who were unable to wrap their heads around the idea of a woman creating this type of flower in her garden. In order to help support Hovakimian and her findings, historian Nadia Wright and Linda Locke (Hovakimian’s great niece) found verification from Ridley, who had recorded her crossbreeding technique. It was only after this hard fought campaign that Hovakimian was finally credited with her contribution to horticulture and the creation of the hybrid orchid.
Additionally, apart from her usual work as a horticulturist, Hovakimian was skilled in embroidery and an active member of her Armenian church.
Hovakimian passed away in 1899 at the age of 45 after a battle with cancer about three months after receiving a prize for her flower. She was buried in the Garden of Memories at the Singapore St. Gregory Armenian Church. Her headstone includes the engraving, “Let her own works praise her,” and indeed, they do.
The first woman to become a doctor in Turkey, Zaruhi Kavaljian was born in Adapazari in 1877. She graduated from the Armenian Girls’ College in 1898 but later moved to the United States as the Ottoman Empire forbade women from pursuing a career in medicine. Kavaljian was accepted to the Department of Medicine at the University of Illinois in 1903. After graduation, she made her way back to her hometown as a doctor with her father Serob, who graduated from Boston University’s School of Medicine. She worked as a doctor in Adapazari and Izmit and taught biology at the American College.
During WWI, Kavaljian was involved in various institutions aiding the wounded and the victims. She later continued to teach at the American Girl’s College of Uskudar where she was proudly known as Dr. Kaval.
Kavaljian passed away in 1969 in Istanbul having left behind a legacy of competence, kindness and persistence as the first female physician in the Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
Anita Caracotchian Conti
Although Armenia is a landlocked country, an Armenian woman is considered one of the world’s foremost oceanographers.
Born in Ermont, Seine-et-Oise to a wealthy Armenian family, Anita Caracotchian Conti spent her childhood learning and studying from home, receiving help from various tutors. Her travels with her family helped her develop a devotion to books and the oceans of the world.
As a young woman, she moved to Paris to concentrate on writing poems and learning the art of bookbinding. She was recognized for her work by numerous celebrities and was awarded for her creative thinking and unique writing skills by readers in London, Paris, New York and Brussels. She was also known as “the lady of the sea” by many sailors.
Caracotchian Conti had her articles published for Le Figaro, L’Illustration and La République. She participated in campaigns such as the Bay of Biscay and Newfoundland, observing sailors in their everyday lives.
Caracotchian Conti always held a passion for the sea throughout her life. When Edward the Dane, Director of the Scientific and Technical Office for Marine Fisheries discovered her research of French oyster beds, he invited her on his oceanographic ship to study the sea. She agreed, of course, as the first woman who took on the responsibilities of an oceanographer. It was on this ship that Caracotchian Conti began to take photographs.
After marrying diplomat Marcel Conti in 1927, she began to travel around the world, recording her observations and conducting experiments. Caracotchian Conti expanded her comprehension of the many issues fishermen faced by observing them on fishing boats for months at a time. During the First and Second World Wars, Caracotchian Conti continued to expand her knowledge of fishing maps and navigational maps. Continuing her observations, she focused on French fishermen along the coast and Saharan Africa for two years, unearthing unknown species of fish in France. Caracotchian Conti published many scientific reports pertaining to the consequences of industrial fishing, as well as a variety of other issues regarding fishing practices. She campaigned to raise awareness of the dangers of overexploitation of the oceans and created maps of fishing zones, the first of this type to exist.
Caracotchian Conti also wrote books about the lives of fishermen. From 1943-1953, she explored the Mauritian Islands – Senegal, Guinea and the Ivory Coast – where she conducted research on the nature of the seabed, various species of fish and their nutritional values. Caracotchian Conti later founded an experimental fishery dedicated to sharks and became increasingly frustrated by the misuse and waste in the fishing industry. In 1971, she published “L’ocean, Les Bêtes et L’Homme,” condemning manmade disasters and their impact on ocean life. She was a dedicated advocate for the safety and well-being of her beloved marine world.
Caracotchian Conti passed away on Christmas Day, December 25, 1997 in the French city of Duarte at the age of 99. As was her wish, her ashes were scattered across the Mediterranean Sea.
Ashkhen Hovakimian, Zaruhi Kavaljian and Anita Caracotchian were brilliant, dedicated and hardworking superwomen. They exhibited strength, passion and diligence throughout their professional lives. At a time when women were scarce in their fields, they were able to fight and shine through this adversity. They devoted their lifetimes to their studies, their patients and their art and became icons in their own individual fields. Together, they leave an everlasting mark on history as they demonstrate once again the faculty, intelligence and tenacity of women.