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.


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

Oxford University Press. Available at (accessed 26 August 2014)

Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses: Honor Bridget Fell

Honor Bridget Fell
Honor Bridget Fell

The third in our series of blog posts celebrating some of the influential scientists featured in Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 looks at the career of Honor Bridget Fell. Honor was a British scientist and zoologist. Her contributions to science included the development of the ‘organ culture method, similar to stem cell research.

Honor was born in Yorkshire to Colonel William and Alice Fell and grew up as one of 9 children. Her father made his living procuring horses for the army. He had a keen interest in animals and it is thought Honor inherited her interest in biology from him.

Her early education took place at the Wychford School in Oxford. The school encouraged not only classics and literature, but science, especially biology. Honor was intensely interested in animals and was well-known for her pet ferrets. In 1916, she went to Madras College, St Andrews, and then to Edinburgh University in 1918. Unsurprisingly, she read for a degree in Zoology.

Her research began under Francis Crew at the Institute for Animal Breeding, exploring the sexual development of fowl. When Crew heard of the work on tissue culturing being done at the Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge, he sent Honor there for a few months to learn the technique. Here she was deeply impressed by watching a cell divide in culture. Thomas Strangeways, in turn, was deeply impressed with her, and offered her a job. As there was no position available for her back at Edinburgh, she joined the Strangeways lab in 1923 on an MRC grant, where she spent the remainder of her career. Whilst at Cambridge, she received her PhD in 1924 and a DSc in 1932; which was notable, due to how uncommon it was for someone under 40 to receive a DSc.

Her relationship with Strangeways was productive and friendly. After Strangeways died in 1926, Honor went on to become temporary director of the laboratory, officially heading up the department at only 29 years-old. Despite the added administrative work, she never let that keep her from the lab.

Most of Honor’s research centred on what Crew had termed ‘organ culture’, which was distinct from tissue culturing, in that the specimens maintained their functionality. With this technique, she was the first to study skeletal tissue, biochemically. She was also credited as being the first to apply biochemical techniques to the study of pathology.

Honor’s reputation grew rapidly, and in 1931, the Royal Society awarded her a 5-year grant to support her work. Most of Honor’s early work focused on biochemical development of bone and cartilage tissues. During the war, her research deviated slightly to ‘war efforts’, namely enzyme healing of wounds. After the war, she returned to her work on bones and cartilage, including research on the influence of vitamin A on skeletal tissue and later on skin.

When she retired, she went to the pathology department at Cambridge to study immunological degradation of cartilage. At the end of her career, she returned to the Strangeways Research Laboratory, and her final research continued in a similar vein, exploring porcine cartilage destruction.

Honor had a most prolific career. She published 145 papers between 1922 and 1989. She received many awards and accolades, including being made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1953. She also became a Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge in 1955 and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957. She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1963. In addition, she was awarded numerous honorary doctorates from such institutions as Harvard, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Her awards and honours are too numerous to list, but the total list, in combination with the glowing reminiscences from her friends and colleagues shine a light on how outstanding she really was.

Honor worked in the laboratory up until the final two weeks of her life. A colleague accredited her success in a largely male-dominated field to the “sheer force of her excellence as a scientist and as a person”. She was known for her precision and care, sharp mind and as a never-ending source of inspiration.


Vaughan, J. (1987) ‘Honor Bridget Fell. 22 May 1900 – 22 April 1986’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 33 [Online], London, Royal Society Publishing. Available at (accessed 9 September 2014)

Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses: Elsie May Widdowson

ElsieThe second in our series of blogposts celebrating some of the influential scientists featured in Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 features Elsie May Widdowson. Elsie, working with Dr Robert McCance, was responsible for overseeing the government-mandated addition of vitamins to food and war-time rationing in Britain during World War II.

Elsie was born in 1906 and raised in south-east London. As a schoolgirl, she had a great interest in zoology, but her chemistry mistress encouraged her to do a degree in chemistry instead. She attended Imperial College, as one of three girls in a class of 100. She finished her BSc exams in 2 years, and spent the remaining year before she was awarded her BSc in the biochemistry laboratory of Professor S.B. Schryver.

She spent her time separating amino acids, no small task in the era before chromatography. Near the end of the year, someone from the Plant Physiology department approached her about a job that was available. She got the job, and spent the next 3 years working with Helen Archbold (later Porter) on a project exploring the chemistry and physiology of apples. Elsie specially looked at the changes in carbohydrates from blossom through ripening and storage. This involved weekly trips to an apple orchard in Kent to pick samples at various stages of growth.

Elsie published her first paper in 1931 in the Biochemical Journal on the determination of reducing sugars in apples. She gained a great deal from working under Helen, but wanted experience in working in animals and humans, so when her grant ran out, she went to the Courtauld Institute at the Middlesex Hospital to work with Professor E.C. Dodds. Here she investigated urine and serum proteins in nephritis, publishing a paper which would later be referred to as ‘pioneering work on the subject’.

After working with Dodds, Elsie needed to find a job. Under his recommendation to explore dietetics, she enrolled in a postgraduate diploma course in dietetics at King’s College of Household and Social Science. It was here that she met Dr Robert McCance, who was doing work on composition of meat and fish, and the effects of cooking on them. He had also done some work on carbohydrates, and upon reading his paper on this, she noticed his figures seemed too low (based on her previous work with apples). Impressed by this, McCance offered Elsie a position, attaining an MRC grant for her, studying the composition of fruits, vegetables and nuts. During her year-long dietetics course, Elsie had the opportunity to work at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Bart’s). She noticed that the nutrient tables for patients at the hospitals were being based on the American tables, which contained values for raw foods, not cooked. She also noticed that the carbohydrate values were based on what was left after water, protein and fats were subtracted; leaving essentially, what we call ‘dietary fibre’ today. This spurred Elsie to believe that there needed to be British tables created. McCance agreed, and together they began writing The Chemical Composition of Foods, which was first published in 1940, containing about 15,000 values.

McCance was busy exploring salt deficiency in diabetic coma patients, and sometimes roped Elsie in to help. The procedure for this study was difficult, requiring subjects to eat a salt-free diet and measuring the sodium in their sweat. These studies were instrumental in helping doctors understand the importance of sodium, the principles of which, are still considered today in the treatment of patients with diabetic coma, heart disease and kidney disease. Later they were given beds in King’s College Hospital, and this led to their studies of iron excretion. This gave rise to the suggestion that iron in the body was not regulated by excretion, but by absorption. This theory was later proven to be true.

Elsie kept in touch with Margery Abrahams, with whom she worked at Bart’s, and together they wrote a book, Modern Dietary Treatment, which was published in 1937. In 1936, Elsie travelled to America to work with the scientists at the Department of Agriculture who had been responsible for publishing the food tables. A notable experience there, was when Elsie tried to (unsuccessfully) convince a senior scientist that the values should be based on studies, like her own, that were current, as opposed to the works of Atwater, which dated from 1900.

In 1938, Elsie went to Cambridge with McCance, where he had been offered a Readership in Medicine. Their work there included a study on the absorption and excretion of strontium by the body. They conducted this by injecting each other with doses of the substance. This happened to be slightly foolhardy, as ‘a slight accident’ resulted in them both suffering a pyrogen infection from bacterial contamination in one of the batches they injected! None the-less, they determined that the body rids itself of strontium slowly, and via the kidney, not the bowel. When World War II began, McCance and Elsie began studying rationing, again using themselves (and other people in the lab) as subjects. They gave themselves what was considered absurdly low rations, and completed feats of physical endurance to test them. It turned out that they were indeed fit and able. They concluded however, that the subjects were not getting enough calcium. This lead to another experiment, in which they and the other volunteers had a carefully measured diet and all excretions were measured and analysed as well. It was a cumbersome and sometimes embarrassing process, but they were able to determine that something in the wholemeal bread(which replaced white bread during rationing) interfered with the absorption of calcium. Their recommendations to add calcium to the flours used in bread was made law, and the practice is still with us today.

Ashwell, M. (2002) ‘Elsie May Widdowson, C.H. 21 October 1906 – 14 June
2000’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society vol. 48 [Online],
London, Royal Society Publishing. Available at (accessed 5 September

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)

Images of women in science

An idle Google image search of ‘women in science’ throws up some interesting results. Cue reams of pictures of girls in labcoats brandishing pipettes… all very nice and politically correct but, why is it only young women who’re portrayed as doing science?

women3women4women1In the majority of these images, women are featured in trainee-type or educative settings; clustered around a microscope learning the ropes or listening with rapt attention to a (probably male, let’s face it) lecturer. Are women only involved in science as students or trainees?  The images we use certainly portray this; they’re not just rife in a Google Images search but are found all over well-meaning sources.

Unfortunately this is an image which is also backed up by statistics. In the biosciences, the undergraduate, PhD and postdoc communities present an approximately 50:50 gender split. However, as soon as more senior roles are considered, this balance erodes until we are left with only 15% female bioscience professors in the UK.(1)

While it’s definitely a great thing that the bioscience student population reflects the gender balance – something which is not seen with other scientific disciplines – it remains a concern that this does not pervade right to the top of the career ladder. The possible reasons for this are many and varied.(2)

In order to change this, we need to alter the perception that women in science are generally young and involved as learners rather than as leaders. Changing the images we use is obviously only a small part of the process required to change this but it’s a step. Anything that could have an influence on the perception of women in science, especially that of young women and men considering a career in science, can only be a good thing.

So let’s champion (and create!) images of women in senior roles and of senior ages.  When selecting images to accompany articles, marketing materials or reports think about the age and role of the female scientists portrayed. It’s a small change, but one that could get us a little closer to a more gender balanced community.

(1) 2011/2012 HESA data
(2) For an analysis, see the Society of Biology’s response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry into women in academic STEM careers