A history of women in plant science

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), archivist Sarah Wilmot explores the history of women in science, both at the John Innes Center and before her training. We travel back in time to understand the obstacles and celebrate the successes of those who overcame those challenges to become scientists and technicians.

Let’s first go back to the period before the founding of the John Innes Centre. Women wishing to do scientific work faced many obstacles. For example, they could not attend British universities until the end of the 19and century.

Even when women were allowed to go to university, their attendance was strictly controlled with segregation into women-only colleges or separate labs. Attempts to expand their access to higher education have often been met with hostility. On occasion, as happened in Cambridge in 1897, the issue sparked mass protests and riots.

By this date, all British universities except Oxford and Cambridge were accepting women’s degrees. At Cambridge, where John Innes’ first director, William Bateson, had first taught genetics, women could attend lectures, but many science teachers did not allow women into their labs.

From 1921 they could take examinations and obtain a ‘titular diploma’, which gave them the formal right to attend university lectures and admission to university laboratories, but there was no no real diploma after all the hard work they had put in.

In fact, women were only able to obtain a full degree in 1948 at Cambridge. Oxford granted women full degrees from 1919.

The “titular degree” deprived women of all academic rights, including access to junior positions and research fellowships that allowed men to climb the scientific career ladder. Voluntary or subsidized work with a male mentor, or a position in the few women’s colleges or women’s laboratories, was often the only way for a woman to pursue scientific research.

What was the situation at the new “John Innes Horticultural Institution”?

Since its founding in 1910, the John Innes Center has provided employment opportunities for women in science.

The institute started with only a few permanent scientific staff, and these positions were supplemented by volunteers and minor and major “scholarships”, open to men and women for terms of up to 5 years. .

While the major scholarships were intended to be prestigious appointments akin to university scholarships, William Bateson was open that he envisioned most minor scholarships (worth £50-100 a year) would be held by women.

How were women employed at John Innes in practice?

In practice, some women, like Muriel Wheldale, began their careers at John Innes with a large scholarship. Others served an apprenticeship as a “minor student” or “technical assistant” before progressing further.

Historian Marsha Richmond, examining the contribution of women to the institute before 1935, calculates that together they numbered 188 people, working as volunteers, assistants, students and staff.

The first cohort of women to join the institute in the 1910s came from a variety of backgrounds, including college graduates, female horticulture graduates, and women with relevant work experience or connection to Bateson.

Several did not have a university degree and therefore did not have the same formal scientific training as the Cambridge women with whom Bateson had previously worked (where most had taken the Natural Sciences Tripos). They were also often “ladies” with private incomes.

Women appointed in the 1920s, and especially in the 1930s, were more likely to be women with science degrees, pursuing doctorates and seeking careers in science. The wages of these women were lower than those of men (in the late 1920s, £200 to £300 a year, while men’s salaries ranged from £250 to £400 a year).

Why did William Bateson strive to employ women?

In the early years of the institute, male and female paid researchers were present in equal (very low) numbers. During World War I, as the male workforce left to work in munitions or join the armed forces, there were four women for every man. Only one male researcher returned to the institute after the war. During the 1920s, until Bateson’s death in 1926, female paid researchers generally outnumbered males.

However, there were several reasons for this pattern besides the disruptions of the war; one was that employing women increased the institute’s budget. But equally important was the influence of the research model that Bateson had established at Cambridge and which worked well.

Marsha Richmond explained that it was a “domestic” model, with the research being carried out within an “extended family” at Bateson’s country home in Grantchester.

Bateson and his wife Beatrice carefully mentored female (and some male) scientists drawn to Mendelian research, working in a close-knit group outside of the traditional biology curriculum and academic departmental structures.

The John Innes Horticultural Institution closely followed this model, with gardens and experimental plots arranged around Bateson’s new home, the Manor House in Merton Park, London. Bateson’s inclusion of women in the new institute was a natural step given the track record of his British Mendelian programme.

What would happen if women working in science got married?

At the time, there were restrictions on the employment of married women, called bar marriage. For example, until 1919, married women were not allowed to teach. In the civil service, the marriage bar operated until 1946, and much later for the foreign service. While WWI and WW2, the wedding bar in the post office was lifted, but only temporarily.

However, women were able to pursue scientific research after marriage, as there was no “marriage ban” for women working in this field.

At the John Innes Institute, some women chose to resign upon marriage and follow their husband’s career. But others chose to keep working, only stopping when childcare responsibilities made working outside the home difficult. Some women were able to continue their research projects after having children, especially during the summer months.

As Marsha Richmond notes, “The location of the institution was conducive to this arrangement, since the institute staff cultivated and maintained its plant material, and researchers generally only needed to visit the institution at the late summer, when it was time to note and analyze. the results.’

Acknowledgments and further reading

I am grateful to Professor Marsha Richmond for her many articles on women in early genetics and for allowing me to see a draft chapter on the history of women geneticists at the John Innes Horticultural Institution. The quotes are from the manuscript of Marsha and Wilmot 2017.

Learn more about women’s contribution to early genetics, both at John Innes and from an international perspective in the forthcoming book co-authored by Marsha Richmond (with Ida Stamhuis) Genes and Gender: Women in the Emergence of Genetics, 1900-1940, in preparation.

The book will include reflections on how the story of women at John Innes compares to that of women geneticists employed at other experimental institutes, including Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and the Institute for Heredity Research. by Erwin Baur in Berlin.

For more information on the John Innes researchers, see Sarah Wilmot (2017): ‘JBS Haldane: the John Innes years, Journal of Genetics, Vol. 96, no. 5, p. 815–826.