Women and the establishment of
Biochemistry in the UK, 1900-45
Robert B. Freedman
School of Life Sciences, Warwick University
Founder members of the Biochemical
Society at its 21st anniversary (1932/3)
Websites and acknowledgements
The work was funded by the Biochemical Society
and supported by the Centre for the History of
Medicine, University of Warwick
I wish to thank Prof Hilary Marland, Drs. Vicky Long
and Stephen Soanes for their valuable contributions
Head and staff of King Edward VI High
School for Girls, Birmingham, 1884
Women authors of papers in the
Biochemical Journal (1906-1939)
• Vols 1-8 of Biochem.J. (1906 – 1914) included papers
by 25 women (50 papers in all)
• In the period to 1939, 372 women authored papers
in the Biochem.J. (1025 papers in all)
• Prolific contributors: Katharine Hope Coward (42),
Ida Smedley (35), Harriette Chick (34), Marjorie
Helen Dennison (26), Gladys Annie Hartwell (23),
Marjorie Stephenson (23)
• Key addresses: Lister Institute (56 women);
Cambridge Biochemistry (27); UC London (25)
Revised Constitution of the
Biochemical Society, October 1912
Election of the first women members
of the Biochemical Society, Feb 1913
Women members of the
Biochemical Society (to 1928)
• Summer 1913: 3 women members out of 147
• 1913-15: More women elected (all proposed by men
members) and more women read papers at meetings
• 12/06/15: Mary Cunningham elected, first to be
proposed exclusively by women members
• Summer 1919: 21 women members out of 209; 4
identify themselves by married names (of whom 3
are married to members!); 14 give workplace
addresses; Ida Smedley is committee member
• 1928: Ida Smedley is first woman Chair of Society
Ida Smedley, campaigner for women’s
equal status and multiple pioneer
Ida Smedley’s career (1877-1944)
• Born into cultured Birmingham family; sister (Constance) a novelist
and feminist activist
• King Edward VI HSG (1886), Newnham College Cambridge (1896),
briefly studies Medicine, then Chemistry (Bathurst Studentship);
D.Sc. London (1905)
• Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry at Manchester Uni (1906) then Beit
Scholar at Lister Inst; work on fats and lipid metabolism.
• Marries collaborator Hugh Maclean (1913) and has son and
daughter; publishes extensively through 1920s and 1930s
• Campaigns on women’s issues and is multiple ‘first woman to…’;
President of Biochemical Society (1927/8); Council of Chemical
Society (1931); Founder-Secretary of British Federation of
University Women (1907) and later President (1919, 1929-35)
Muriel Wheldale in her laboratory
Muriel Wheldale’s career (1880-1932)
• King Edward VI HSG Birmingham, then Newnham College
Cambridge (1900), Bathurst Research Studentship (1904)
• Lecturer in Botany, Bristol Uni (1906-08) then returns to Cambridge
as Demonstrator at the Balfour Laboratory (1909-14) and Research
Fellow at Newnham College
• Early Mendelian; from 1911, works with Bateson at the John Innes
(Merton), researching genetics of flower pigments
• Joins FG Hopkins’ group in Biochemistry (1914), with vision of
linking genetics to biochemistry (via plant pigments)
• Marries collaborator Huia Onslow (1919-1922)
• Publishes ‘The Anthocyanin Pigments of Plants’ (from 1916) and
‘Practical Plant Biochemistry’ (from 1920), ‘Principles of Plant
Biochemistry’ (1931)
• Appointed Lecturer in Biochemistry, Cambridge (1926)
Muriel Wheldale as a member of
Gowland Hopkins’ group in Cambridge
Marjory Stephenson (with Judith) outside
the Cambridge Biochemistry Department
Marjory Stephenson’s career
• Home schooling, then Newnham (1903-06)
• Teaches in women’s domestic science colleges (1906-11), then invited to
UCL (by Plimmer) to research nutrition/metabolism
• Wins Beit Fellowship (1913); puts it on hold for Red Cross war service -nursing and organizing field hospital kitchens (France and Salonika);
awarded MBE for work on invalid diets
• Continues Fellowship (1919); moves to Cambridge to work with Hopkins;
applies his concept of ‘general biochemistry’ to bacteria; microbiology as
basic science, not only in applied medical, agricultural or industrial context
• External MRC staff at Cambridge (1929); publishes ‘Bacterial Metabolism’
(1930); awarded Sc.D. (1936); appointed to Lectureship (1943); one of first
two women elected FRS (1945)
The keen gaze of the founder of
microbial biochemistry
Factors contributing to women’s
progress in Biochemistry?
• Advances in secondary education for girls and
access to higher education
• Women-only learning environments?
• Novelty and lack of hierarchy of the subject?
• ‘Appropriateness’ of the subject cf. traditional
female roles in hygiene, nutrition, botany?
• Sympathetic, influential male mentors;
creators of woman-friendly environments
• Positive and supportive women’s networks
Head and staff of King Edward VI High
School for Girls, Birmingham, 1884
The Balfour Laboratory for Women,
Cambridge (1884-1914)
Was Biochemistry unusually open
and non-exclusive?
• Chemistry and Physiology were older fields, but
women had to battle longer and wait far later to gain
membership of the Chemical Society and
Physiological Society
• Chemistry and Physiology were directly linked to
working lives in industry and medicine --- technical
and professional fields with well-established male
hierarchical structures
• Was it just that Biochemistry was new (lacking these
established hierarchies)? That it attracted less rigid
men? Or was it viewed as a ‘Domestic Science’?
Charles Martin and F. Gowland Hopkins:
early supporters of women biochemists
The Lister Institute building today
(now the private Lister Hospital)
Scientific staff of the
Lister Institute, 1907
By 1933, 40% of the scientists at
the Lister Institute are women
Hopkins’ research group, 1916
The Biochemistry Department,
Tennis Court Road, Cambridge
‘Brighter Biochemistry’ notes the
inevitability of workplace relationships
Joseph Needham and Dorothy Moyle
on their wedding day, 1924
Stephenson, Wheldale and Moyle:
Cambridge women in the front rank?
Dorothy (Moyle) Needham’s career
• Girton, Cambridge (1915); attended Hopkins’ lectures on
muscle metabolism; muscle and Cambridge from then on
• Research with Hopkins (1920) on interconversion of glycogen
and lactate, then (independently as Beit Fellow) on general
muscle metabolism, phosphate transfer, actomyosin
• Married Joseph Needham, developmental biologist (1924);
married for 63 years, despite unusual pressures!
• Sino-British co-operation in wartime Chungking (1944-46)
• Published ‘The Biochemistry of Muscle’ (1932) and ‘Machina
Carnis’ (1971); FRS (1948)
• ‘Lifelong multifarious involvements in humanitarian action
and progressive politics’. ‘She retained a certain innocence
and freedom from worldliness.’
Dorothy Needham (Moyle)
as meeting organizer, 1934
Dorothy Needham (Moyle) reflects
• “Looking back … I find it remarkable ... that although
a fully-qualified and full-time investigator, I never
received – or even applied for – any substantive post.
I simply existed on one research grant after another,
devoid of position, rank or assured emolument. In
other words, I belong to that generation for whom it
was calmly assumed that married women would be
supported financially by their husbands, and if they
chose to work in the laboratory all day and half the
night, it was their own concern.”
Marjorie Stephenson and Dorothy Needham,
both FRS and full Cambridge academics, 1948

Robert Freedman - University of Warwick