Cambodian Women In History: Dr. Pauline Dy Phon

In newly independent Cambodia there were efforts made to modernize society- with some women rising above the traditional roles. However, much of the nation remained rooted in deep conservatism- especially when it came women. It had been little more than a century since the code for women- chbab serey – published in the form of a poem supposedly by King Ang Duong, was widely seen as the cultural norm- advising young women to maintain peace within the home, walk and talk softly, and obey and respect husbands.

Therefore, it took a certain amount of self-control and courage- along with an acquiescing family- for a young woman to further her education- let alone succeed in building a successful life and legacy.

One such figure was Dr. Pauline Dy Phon- a name still well known in botanical circles- among her many works, the tri-lingual (Khmer-French-English) Dictionary of plants used in Cambodia is the standard reference for studies in the field.

Born in 1933 to a wealthy Catholic family, Dy Phon left to study in France, obtaining her degree in Natural Sciences at the Faculty of Sciences de Paris in 1959. She returned to Cambodia to teach at the Lycée Sisowath in Phnom Penh. A decade later, in 1969 Dy Phon again went to France to defend her doctoral thesis at the University of Toulouse in 1969.

Doctorate completed; she became a professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Phnom Penh, and later chaired the Sciences et culture committee set up by the Cambodian government. Undoubtedly, this modern woman in a man’s world, Dr. Dy Phon would have ruffled a few feathers- along with the fact she was a practicing Catholic in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country

Her life as a teacher and researcher at the University of Phnom Penh came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge entered the capital in April 1975 and the population of the cities were forced into the countryside, to labor in rural cooperatives. She was able to survive the genocide, unlike many of her fellow intellectuals and former students, and in 1980, was able to claim asylum in France via Khao-I-Dang refugee camp.

Khao I Dang (7 December 1979), Camp for Cambodian refugees. The reunion of two botanists, fellow students at
Paris University of Natural History (G. Condominas & R. Pottier, Les réfugiés originaires de l’Asie du Sud-Est, Paris, La documentation française, 1982). Woman on left has been named as Marie A Martin, right is Pauline Dy Phon

She was admitted to the Laboratoire de botanique du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and resumed her research work by first defending a doctoral thesis at the University of Paris XI (Orsay) on “general considerations of the vegetation of Cambodia” in 1981. This was followed by a doctoral thesis at the University of Paris VI on “the morphology and phylogeny of a genus of legumes and the phyletic and systematic relationships with general neighbors (using light and scanning microscopes“in 1987.

In 1994, she returned to Cambodia for her first visit since arriving in France in 1980.

She continued to publish books on the subject of botany. From 1962 to 1990. The research work carried out by Dr. Pauline DY PHON has been categorized into three groups:

1. Exploring tropical biospheres:

As a botanist specializing in Southeast Asian flora and particularly in Cambodian flora, she contributed, within her laboratory of the Museum National History of Natural History, to identify and classify the plants of Cambodia and Indochina. She was thus able to fill many missing gaps in botanical science, following in the footsteps of her teacher, Professor Jules-Émile Vidal. This work, including the discovery of five new species of the Papilionaceae (legumes) family across Indochina (Euchresta Bennet, Gueldenstaedtia Fischer, Medicago Linné, Parochetus Buchanan Hamilton, Tifidacanthus Merril) saw her awarded the Prix de Coincy by the Académie des Sciences in 1980.

2. Connecting plants and humans

As well as a true scientist, Dr. Dy Phon’s work extended to social sciences. Far from being interested only in the physical properties of plants, she looked at their use in traditional pharmacopoeia, cultural symbolism and regional distribution.

Her sole written work on the Khmer Rouge regime was a study on ‘Plants in the Khmer diet in normal times and in times of famine’.

She also studied the impact of ‘new plants’ especially those intorduce from the Americas during the post-Angkorian period. *Try telling Cambodians just a few hundred years ago there were no chili peppers, no corn, sweet potato, tomatoes, cassava and other main staples!

3. Passing on knowledge of plants to the younger generations

As a devout Catholic and teacher, she felt her presence here on earth was driven by the need to improve the lives of others and the desire to educate young Cambodians

The publication of ‘Dictionary of plants used in Cambodia’ in Khmer-English-French was her sum achievement of a lifetime of research, which today gives Cambodians the chance to recognize and understand their natural history.

Pauline Dy Phon died on May 21 2010. Dictionary of plants used in Cambodia is still considered the most comprehensive work of its kind, and is frequently cited in modern research.

A French obituary in Chatomukh Journal May 2010:

Doctor of botany, Pauline DY PHON has devoted most of her scientific career – over four decades – to studying the flora of Cambodia. With a touch of
humor, one could say that she was – in this scientific way – a “unique specimen’! With this in mind, it should be remembered that through the
constitution of a solid botanical classification of Khmer soil, it has made data available to the research world to better understand a predominantly
rural society and a culture imbued with multiple references to its flora. , as welll in its traditional pharmacopoeia, in its cuisine or in its architectural
types [Plants used in Cambodia, 2000]. A type of entry into Khmer studies that she will not disdain on occasion and in an instructive manner

Her published works included:


Practical works of micrography and plant morphology for the use of students in SPCN-PCB , 2 volumes, 200 p, Phnom Penh.


Course in Plant Biology for the use of students in SPCN-PCB and in 1st year of Pharmacy, Phnom Penh, Printed course (Imprimerie Decho Damdin).


List of medicinal plants used in pharmacopoeia in Cambodia, handouts, Phnom Penh.


Systematic Botany Course, handouts, Phnom Penh.


Flora and vegetation of the Kirirom plateau and its surroundings, Annales Faculty of Sciences , University of Phnom Penh.


The vegetation of the South-West of Cambodia, (published thesis, Ist part). Annales Faculty of Sciences , University of Phnom Penh.


“The vegetation of South-West Cambodia”, (published thesis, part 2). Annales Faculty of Sciences , University of Phnom Penh.


With MA Martin, “Botanical Guide to the City of Phnom Penh”. Annales Faculty of Sciences , University of Phnom Penh, color map.

Aquatic plants for current consumption in Cambodia, Revue Agronomique Khmere , Phnom Penh.

General considerations on legumes, Annales Faculty of Sciences , University of Phnom Penh.


The genus Trapa of Indochina, Phnom Penh, (work lost during Khmer Rouge)

illustrated Flora of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, with 950 color photos (work lost during Khmer Rouge)


“Botanical novelties for Indochina’, Seksa khmer.


General considerations on the vegetation of Cambodia, 3rd cycle thesis, Option: Plant ecology, Faculty of Sciences of Orsay, 1981, 28 photos, 4 maps.

“New taxa for the flora of Indochina”, Bulletin Muséum national Histoire naturelle , Paris.

“Ecological factors and vegetation of Cambodia”, Seksa khmer,

with J.-E. Vidal, “Global Cambodian transcription test’, Seksa khmer, n° 3-4..


“Plants in the Khmer diet in normal times and in times of famine’, CEDRASEMI Paris.

“Brief overview on Cambodian forests’, Seksa khmer ,n° 5.

“Vegetation of Cambodia: endemism and affinities of its flora with neighboring regions”, CR, Socio Biogéographie.


With J. Vidal, “Legumes-papilionoidées du Cambodge”, Seksa khmer, n° 7, 1984


With NV Thuén & Nyomdham, Flore du Cambodge, du Laos et du Vietnam , Muséum national Histoire naturelle, Paris- 40 photo plates, 1 map.


With Bernard Rollet, Lexicon of forest trees of Cambodia , Paris, National Forestry Office, 1999.

Plants used in Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Khmer ~ English – French trilingual dictionary, preface by Maurice Fontaine, Member of the Institute, 915 p.

Update and new edition of the Botanical Guide to the city of Phnom Penh, preface by the governor of the city Kep Chuktema, Editions Funan.

Sources include: Chatomurkh Journal 2010,  Association d’échanges et de formation pour les études khmeres (AEFEK), Dr Khing Hoc Dy and the ever useful HOMMES ET HISTOIRE DU CAMBODGE

*Almost all the source material is in French, so apologies if some small errors have been made en traduction

One thought on “Cambodian Women In History: Dr. Pauline Dy Phon

  • April 11, 2023 at 8:50 am

    Hello Team,
    May I know if you have the book “Dictionary of Plants Used in Cambodia” for sell? Or you could recommend where can I buy that book please?
    I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    thank you.


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