Post by: Benjamin Palmer (@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 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.
Today, on Ada Lovelace Day, people are highlighting the lives and careers of great women in science, engineering, technology and maths. Several blogs and articles will appear today about Ada herself, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and other well-known women in STEM, but I would like to celebrate the life of a woman biochemist that may not otherwise be acknowledged today. Whose work and research fundamentally changed her field; but for which she received no appointments, awards or honours – Elizabeth Marian Press.
Elizabeth was born in 1920 in Marylebone, London. She was an only child; her father owned a zinc and plumbing business and her mother had been a ladies maid before marrying. Little is known about Elizabeth’s early days, but she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) at age 19; when WWII broke out. After her service, she attended Queen Mary’s College and received a BSc in chemistry.
In autumn of 1955, Betty (as she was known) joined the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill in Rod Porter’s laboratory. It was a new group; consisting only of Betty, Porter and two technicians. They were also joined, for a time, by American immunochemist and protein biochemist – John Cebra.
Betty worked with Porter for the entire duration of her career and they had an excellent working relationship. She moved with Porter to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in 1960 and in 1967 they moved again to the MRC Immunochemistry Unit in the Biochemistry Department at Oxford. Here Betty took up a senior MRC scientific post (which she held until her retirement), and Porter was appointed to the Whitley Chair of Biochemistry.
Betty was an outstanding protein biochemist, and contributed greatly to Porter’s Nobel Prize win in 1972. Their work focused on structural immunochemistry and at the time, it was thought that antibody molecules were too large to study intact. Together Betty and Porter broke down the structures into fragments and chains and conducted studies on them. They determined the 4-chain structure of the immunoglobulin G molecule, amongst several other important discoveries in the field. Near the end of her career, Betty also studied the structure of plasma complement protein C4, and contributed greatly to our understanding of the cascade of reactions in the innate immune system.
One of the most interesting things about Betty’s career, setting her apart from many other women scientists of her time, is that she never went for a PhD. Something she felt the lack of which did not affect her work or ability. She even supervised PhD students, without ever having done one herself. It did, however, mean that she did not receive the full acknowledgement she should have for her ground-breaking work. She was never made a Fellow of the Royal society, awarded any fellowships, and receives little mention in reviews of Porter’s life (despite co-authoring nearly 2 dozen papers with him). When Porter won his Nobel Prize, she was immensely pleased, and felt it represented work to which “they all had contributed”.
Betty was described as straight-forward, without pretense, and understated and modest, but with a keen sense of humour. She exemplified dependability, and integrity in all she did. She was decisive and practical; quickly figuring out what needed to be done, and getting on with it. She was especially well-known for her capacity to put rambling debates to a quick halt, with nothing more than a few perceptive phrases. She was generous with her time and knowledge, especially to students, and despite not being overtly emotional; she cared greatly about those around her.