Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses: Winifred May Watkins

The fourth and final post in our series celebrating some of the influential scientists featured in Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 focuses on the career of Winifred May Watkins. Winifred was a British biochemist and academic who worked at the Imperial College School of Medicine.

Winifred was born in London in 1924. Her family had no scientific connections. She went to St Stephen’s parish elementary school in Shepherd’s Bush, after which she was awarded a London county scholarship to go to Godolphin and Latymer Girls’ School in Hammersmith. The school was evacuated during the war, but she was able to ­finish later and received her higher school certi­ficate in 1942. During the war, after secondary school, Winifred had two choices: to either serve in the military, or to do a job approved by the Ministry of Labour. Being a lab technician was an approved job, so Winifred chose that and, quite fortunately, she was sent to the biochemistry department at the Lister Institute (the only department which remained in Chelsea during the war).

At the Lister Institute she met Walter Morgan. Morgan saw potential in Winifred very quickly and went on to be her lifelong friend and mentor. Winifred’s name appeared on papers published by Morgan as early as 1944. Winifred enjoyed her experience in the lab greatly, especially the opportunity to be in contact with eminent scientists of the time. She began taking evening classes at Chelsea Polytechnic and received an honours degree in chemistry from London University in 1947.

She left Lister for 3 years to complete her PhD in the action of nitrogenic mustards (used in the treatment of leukemia) at St Bartholomew’s Hospital medical school with the immunochemist Arthur Wormall. After she was awarded her PhD, she returned to Lister to continue working with Morgan on the chemical structure of red cell antigens in the ABO blood group.

Winifred and Morgan made an important discovery, early on, that the A and B antigenic determinants were carbohydrates, and not themselves gene products. They showed that the A and B genes code for the enzymic precursors to antigens. Winifred came up with several theories during her research, and nearly all of them were proven correct. One of her most brilliant contributions was the proposal of genetic pathways in which the genes involved in the blood group antigen system acted sequentially. In 1960–61, Winifred took a sabbatical to go to University of California at Berkeley to research glycosyltransferases; work which greatly influenced her research upon her return to the Lister Institute. In 1965 she was made a reader in biochemistry at University of London, and in 1968 she was made professor.

The Lister Institute closed in 1975, and Winifred moved to the newly-created MRC division of immunochemical genetics at Northwick Park, where she was appointed head. She made several important discoveries while at Northwick Park, including that A and B transferases have overlapping speci­ficities and that unexpected antigenic determinants appear on malignant cells due to the lack of normal transferases. She suffered a stroke in the 1970s, but was still able to continue working. When the division closed in 1989, she went on to continue her research at the haematology department at Hammersmith Hospital until she retired in 2000.

In 1969 she was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and served as member of the council at the Royal Society from 1984 to 1986. She also received the Society’s royal medal in 1988. She was awarded the Landsteiner memorial award (jointly) in 1967, the Ehrlich-Ludwig Darmstädter prize (jointly) in 1969 and was given an honorary DSc from Utrecht University in 1990.

Winifred was described by friends and colleagues as shy, but friendly and cheerful. Her scienti­fic career was of utmost importance to her. She died in 2003 after contracting pneumonia following a second stroke.


References

Mollison, P.L. (2007), ‘Watkins, Winifred May (1924–2003)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Online],

Oxford University Press. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/94805 (accessed 26 August 2014)

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