Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses

We in the biochemistry community are truly standing on the shoulders of giantesses.

In recognition of this fact, the Biochemical Society commissioned a research project into the lives and work of prominent female biochemists from 1945-1975 as part of our recent Women in Biochemistry year.

Today, we release the result of this project: Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 – a collection of interviews and profiles that paints an insightful picture of the day-to-day happenings, motivations, hurdles and successes of women working in molecular biology at the time

This report explores the possible reasons for why biochemistry proved to be such a fruitful field for women. Perhaps, as it was a ‘new’ discipline, it was more open, and less entrenched in gender bias than other subjects. Within biochemistry, several research areas were considered, at the time, to be ‘gender appropriate’. Research in so-called ‘domestic’ topics was considered to be more acceptable than others. Many of the women highlighted in this booklet worked in nutrition, endocrinology and reproduction, and plants and agriculture.

Additionally, the two World Wars undoubtedly played a role in facilitating the careers of female biochemists. In the UK, during the Second World War, women were required to complete mandatory service, and many of the women featured here began their careers in laboratories during the war. Additionally, with many men away at war, there was more opportunity for women to establish themselves in research.

Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 follows on from an earlier project that investigated the lives of female biochemists in Britain from the inception of the Biochemical Journal in 1906 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

Over the next month, we’ll be highlighting some of the influential scientists featured in Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 and the impact they made on our discipline.

200px-Daphne_OsborneDaphne J. Osborne 1925–2006

(some sources state her year of birth as 1930)

Daphne was born in India, where her father was a colonial administrator. As a young child in India, she developed an interest in plants and fauna and a love for travel. She returned to the UK to board at Perse School in Cambridge, and then attended Kings College, London where she read for a BSc in chemistry and an MSc in botany. She went on to complete a PhD in botany at University of London’s Wye College, researching plant growth regulators. She was married briefly in her youth, but dedicated herself to her career.

After her PhD, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and travelled to California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to join their biology department. There she worked with Frits Went, the pioneer of plant hormone research. This trip was the first of many during Daphne’s career, which included posts and fellowships in USA, Argentina, Nigeria and Israel, amongst many others.

Daphne returned to the UK in 1952 and joined the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) Unit of Experimental Agronomy at the Department of Agricultural Science at Oxford University. At this time, the majority of Daphne’s work focused on selective herbicides, especially auxin, but she also conducted research on chemical promoters of the seasonal abscission of leaves.

When the unit closed in 1970, she was offered the position of deputy director at the new ARC Unit of Developmental Botany at the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, she became the first female fellow of Churchill College, and also supervised the first female PhD student at the college. When this unit closed in 1978, she moved to the AFRC (the ARC changed their name to Agriculture and Food Research Council) Weed Research Organization at Begbroke. She remained there until 1985, and gained a senior position in the British Civil Service, deputy chief scientific officer.

She retired from civil service in 1985 as was obligatory at aged 60, but a ‘restful’ retirement was not an option for someone so driven and passionate. She went on to become a visiting professor at Oxford, as well as joining the Open University as an honorary research fellow. In 1988, she organised the NATO Advanced Research Workshop in Turin, Italy on cell separation processes in plants.

She travelled extensively and received many visitors, as she did throughout her career, and in 1991, she moved to the Open University’s Oxford research laboratory, and remained there until her death in 2006. Here she began working on an interesting 2-stage abscission process in the fruits of oil palms. Working on tropical plants in England was no small feat, but Daphne received regular air shipments of materials through her sponsor, Unilever.

Daphne was known to diversify her research interests and used collaboration as an opportunity to learn new skills. Across her over 50-plus years of research, she worked on a wide variety of areas in botany. She helped promote ethylene as a natural regulator in plants, dispelling the commonly held view that it was a pollutant, or by-product. Further work focused on seed viability in relation to DNA degradation and repair. She even developed a project for the European Space Agency’s Spacelab programme on the effects of gravity on cell elongation.

She was perhaps best known for what was called the ‘Osborne concept of target cells’, cells in specific positions in plants that were particularly sensitive to endogenous regulators. She published a book on this topic with Michael McManus in 2005; Hormones, Signals and Target Cells in Plant Development.

Daphne published over 200 papers during her career, and her outstanding work was acknowledged with several awards and accolades. She received an honorary professorship at Kiev University, an honorary research fellowship from Somerville College, Oxford; doctorates from the Open University and the University of Natal, South Africa, and the Sircar Memorial Gold Medal for Research in Physiology from the University of Calcutta. She was elected a corresponding member of the Botanical Society of America and in 2008, the Annals of Botany published a commemorative issue in her honour.

Daphne was described as having a “wonderful intellectual style” and a “proclivity for remarkable and perceptive experimental findings”. Her career can only be described as legendary. Even on her deathbed it is said that she was still editing papers and discussing on-going projects. She was an excellent teacher and supervisor and her expertise was sought out world-wide, owing to her seemingly never-ending source of inventive experiments and ever-curious mind.


Ridge, I. and Jackson M. (2008) ‘Daphne J. Osborne (1925-2006)’, Annals of Botany, vol. 101 no. 2 [Online], Oxford, Oxford University Press. Available at   (Accessed 9 September 2014)

The Times (2006) ‘Daphne Osborne’, Times, 27 July [Online]. Available at   (Accessed 11 September 2013)

Wikipedia (2013) Daphne Osborne [Online], 27 October 2013. Available at (Accessed 9 September 2014)

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