Post by: Benjamin Palmer (Find Benjamin on Twitter @BenForScience)
During the Society’s Centenary celebrations in 2011, the Society undertook a research project offering an insight into the work and lives of women biochemists in Britain from 1906 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. In 2013, the Biochemical Society has been celebrating a centenary of a different kind, marking 100 years since the first women were allowed to be members. To honour this occasion, the previous research project has been extended to explore the careers and experiences of women biochemists from WWII until the mid-70’s.
Over a series of blog posts, we will look at several prolific women biochemists whose careers extend into/during this time period; starting with Marjory Stephenson.
Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948)
Despite being born to a family of farmers and horse-trainers, Marjory’s interest in science was encouraged from a very young age. She studied Natural Sciences at Newnham College in Cambridge, after which she intended to study medicine. However, medicine was financially infeasible for her family, so she went on to teach Domestic Science at Gloucester Training College and King’s College of Household Science. Her first research position was offered to her at UCL in 1911, where she began exploring fat metabolism with R. H. A. Plimmer (co-founder of the Biochemistry Society).
Before the outbreak of WWI, she was due to return to Cambridge on a Beit Fellowship, but chose instead to serve during the war. She served with the Red Cross and earned an MBE for her efforts.
She returned to research at Cambridge, in 1919, joining their biochemistry laboratory. Even though she had her Beit Fellowship, she would work at Cambridge for another 10 years before receiving any formal recognition for her work. In 1929, she was made an external staff member of the Medical Research Council, and in 1936, Cambridge awarded her a ScD, but it wasn’t until 1943 that she was made a university lecturer. By this point, she had been lecturing for 18 years.
In 1945, along with physicist Kathleen Lonsdale, she became the first woman to be elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society. She also co-founded the Society for General Microbiology and became its second President in 1947.
Her research area was bacterial metabolism; a field which she essentially pioneered. Many notable discoveries and contributions in this field can be attributed to Stephenson, including expanding on Pasteur’s work to develop the ‘washed suspension’ technique in purifying enzymes (alongside Margaret Whetham and Juda Quastel). Most of her research was conducted via aerobic and anaerobic oxidation-reduction reactions and she was the first, with Leonard Stickland, to isolate a bacterial enzyme (lactic dehydrogenase from E. coli). She continued to work with Stickland on hydrogen transfer – highlighted by their discovery of the enzyme hydrogenase – then continued her research exploring the factors that controlled the formation of enzymes.
During WWII, she worked with the Toxins Committee and helped develop immunizations to diseases such as gas gangrene. She was very proactive in inciting research into pathogenic anaerobes during this time, calling meetings and mobilising the best minds in this area.
In the final years of her career, Stephenson had begun research on bacterial nucleic acids and their degradation by enzymes.
On top of publishing over 20 papers during her eminent career, in 1930 she published Bacterial Metabolism, which ran 3 editions, and for decades was considered the seminal text in the field.
Stephenson was passionate about the link between teaching and research and well-known for her ability to motivate and inspire research students. This is clearly demonstrated by the number of students who went on to become professors themselves, including Earnest Gale who continued her research. Stephenson was well-respected in the scientific community despite being a woman in a male-dominated field, and worked alongside several other successful female scientists of that era. She was described as imaginative, skilful and helpful, and as “scientifically … the best of the whole lot” by Hans Krebs.