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Stephenson, Marjory - THE ENTRY OF WOMEN INTO THE BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES

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The biological sciences were relatively more welcoming to women than the other sciences, and fewer obstacles were placed in their path. Unlike medicine, botany was regarded as an acceptable occupation for women, combining fresh air and exercise with the accomplishments of drawing and painting. Painting led a number of women towards botany and zoology. Maria Sibylle Merian (1647–1717), one of the earliest female entomologists, had a business in Amsterdam selling silk, hand-painted with flower designs. She initially studied caterpillars in order to find other varieties than silkworms which could be used to provide fine thread. She spent two years in Surinam collecting and painting insects and plants; her Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was published in 1705. Many women took up botanical illustration, as accurate illustrations were needed to distinguish the different species and varieties. Madeleine Frances Basseport (1701–80) was an illustrator for the French Royal Gardens 1735–80, and there are over 700 drawings of fungi by Anna Worsley Russell (1807–76) in the British Museum.

Botany began to be popular among women as a hobby with the publication of a number of books written by women for women. Priscilla Bell Wakefield (1751–1832) wrote an Introduction to Botany as letters from one sister to another, explaining the Linnaean system of classification; it ran into 11 editions by 1840. When the Botanical Society of London was formed in 1836, about 10% of the members were women. One member, , led the use of photography in place of drawing to illustrate scientific books. She used cyanotype’ process (1842) to make contact prints of her collection of algae and produced Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (3 vols, 1843–53). Elsewhere in Europe women were taking an interest in botany. Amalie Konkordie Dietrich’s (1821–91) special interest was in the alpine flora of Europe and she was later to be appointed curator of the Hamburg Botanical Museum.

Unlike astronomy, women in the biological sciences could provide for themselves, if self-financing, the laboratory equipment needed. gained experience in the use of the microscope through her brother’s interests and became an expert on insect infestations. Although largely self-taught, she became recognized as an authority on agricultural entomology by Edinburgh University with an honorary LlD in 1900.

During the later part of the 19th-c university education became available to women. In the USA women such as the twin sisters Agnes and Edith Claypole (1870–1954/15) gained science degrees and moved into teaching in higher education. Edith died of typhoid fever contracted during her research on the typhoid bacillus. Mary Brandegee (1844–1920) gained an MD degree in 1878 at the University of California and became interested in medicinal plants; with her husband she founded a journal of botanical observations. Clara Cummings (1853–1906) studied at Wellesley College and joined the staff; she specialized in cryptogamic (spore-producing) flora. was a student at Stanford University and gained her PhD in 1903 under at Bryn Mawr. She found the chromosomal basis of sex-determination, but died before the importance of her work and her reputation were fully established. In Britain, went to Girton College, Cambridge and took the natural science tripos examination in 1885. She carried out research in cytology and in anatomical morphology, working from a laboratory at home. Her best-known work concerned the anatomy of seedlings; she suggested a new interpretation of the relationship between mono- and dicotyledons.

Cambridge occupied a key position in the education and training of the first generation of British women scientists. Those at Girton and Newnham were only accepted by their colleges if they were candidates for the tripos (honours) examination, and so formed a body of especially able students. Although at this stage the women were not granted degrees, only certificates of proficiency, they were attracted to the high quality of teaching as the women were permitted to attend the university lectures if they had the consent of the lecturers. They were not officially part of the university and so were barred from university prizes and scholarships and restricted in their use of the library. Such opposition seemed to create a challenge to which the women rose, often gaining higher marks than the male prizewinners. The presence at Cambridge of Emily Davies (1830–1921), Girton’s founder and a prominent figure in the reform of female education, put Cambridge in a prime position to provide first-class women science teachers for the best of the newly opened girls’ schools, which in turn brought a steady supply of well-taught, able women students to the Cambridge tripos courses. Opportunities for research in biochemistry and physiology at Cambridge were the result of such good training. , regarded as ‘the father of biochemistry’, at a time when the opportunities for research biochemists in British universities was minimal and when there were few women research workers in other university departments, provided research places for women in his department despite the criticism this caused.

The 20th-c has seen the emergence of women among the highest achievers in the biological sciences. In 1945 , who researched under Hopkins at Cambridge, became the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in the biological sciences; she worked on bacterial metabolism. The following year was honoured; her researches in Cambridge were concerned with the anatomy and morphology of monocotyledonous plants. In 1947 Muriel Robertson (1883–1973) was elected an FRS; she worked on protozoa, especially the trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness, and on bacteriology and immunology. The only sisters to both achieve an FRS were , elected in 1948, who was the world’s expert on the higher level classification of arthropods, and in 1961, who set up the first laboratory in the world for the ultrastructural study of plants using the electron microscope.

By now the pathway to honours was well trodden by women in the biological sciences. Honor Bridget Fell (1900–86) became an FRS in 1952, and studied the cellular interactions of cartilage and bone. Helen Kemp Porter (1899–1987), elected in 1956, was interested in starch metabolism and became one of the first investigators to apply chromatography and radioactive tracers to prepare radioactive biochemicals and use them to study the intermediate metabolism of plants. Sheina Macalister Marshall (1896–1977), a marine biologist, was elected in 1963. , the co-deviser of the sliding-filament theory of muscle contraction, was elected an FRS in 1967. Mary Winifred Parke (1908–89), elected in 1972, was an all-round expert on algae. In 1991 , an embryologist elected an FRS in 1975, became the first woman to hold office in the Royal Society’s 330-year history, by taking the post of Foreign Secretary.

During the later half of the 20th-c women began to win Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, despite their difficulty in obtaining senior academic posts. GERTY THERESA CORI , née RADNITZ , shared a Nobel Prize with her husband in 1947 for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen in animal cells. In 1977 received hers for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones, now routinely used in clinical diagnosis. In 1983 received the prize, unshared, for her discovery of mobile genetic elements (‘jumping genes’). was awarded hers jointly with Stanley Cohen for their discoveries of nerve growth factors in 1986. was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine jointly with for ‘introducing a more rational approach based on the understanding of basic biochemical and physiological processes’ to the synthesis of novel drugs.

(1885–1948) British biochemist and microbiologist: the first female Fellow of the Royal Society in biological sciences.

Marjory Stephenson’s father was a Cambridge-shire farmer with an interest in applied science; he read and began fruit growing in a region previously without orchards. It was he who explained nitrogen fixation to Marjory as a child when they walked together in a clover field, but it was her mother who oversaw her education and pressed for her to enter university at a time when this was a novel path for girls.

She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge (1903–06) and became a teacher of domestic science for a short period, but then began biochemical research in London in 1911. When the First World War broke out she joined the Red Cross, serving with distinction in France and in Salonika. Afterwards she joined in research back in Cambridge, and spent the rest of her life in the Biochemical Laboratory there, working at first with him on vitamins but from 1922 making her own mark in the study of bacterial metabolism and becoming the leading expert on the enzymes that control this. She was able to show that these enzymes were essentially similar in nature and activity to those of higher organisms.

She did much to establish bacterial chemistry as a valuable branch of biochemistry. Many researchers were trained by her in microbiology, and it was no surprise that she was one of the first two women to be elected Fellows of the Royal Society in 1945, together with the crystallographer .

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