8 March 2018

250 years of women in botany

To mark International Women’s Day – and also 100 years of Suffrage – we take a moment to celebrate the pioneering female researchers and scientists in botany.

DNA extraction (Photo: Andrew McRobb / RBG Kew)

It’s all in the name 

For centuries, women have been making huge contributions to the field of botany.  

And as in many sectors, their remarkable findings have often been hidden. However, in science there’s long been a positive tradition that keeps their names in the record books.   

When an herbarium specimen is named, the collector is cited. When a plant taxonomist describes a new species, their names are attached as authors.  

This means that we have a record of plant name authors going back to 1753, the very year that the modern plant naming system began.   

Kew scientists Heather Lindon, Maria Vorontsova, Lauren Gardiner and Abigail Brady used the International Plant Names Index’s author database to analyse the specific contributions made by women to the science of naming and describing plants over the past 250 years.   

This work has allowed us to recognise the first women who have shaped our knowledge today.  

The women behind the plants 

Before the widely-used Linnaean system of naming species was created in 1735 by Carl Linnaeus, Mary, the Duchess of Beaufort, provided many specimens to Sir Hans Sloane, a naturalist whose collection formed the basis of the Natural History Museum’s Herbarium in London.   

In 1757, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to formally publish a species name, just four years after Linnaeus published his major work Species Plantarum and established modern nomenclatural practice.  

Other early female botanists, often painters and illustrators, included women such as Mary Lawrence who illustrated three species of Rosa in 1799. Helena Perpenti published the plant species Campanula rainerii in 1817, whilst maintaining a career in medical research and looking after her own large family.  

One of the most prolific female plant authors, Harriet Margaret Louise Bolus, began publishing just before the start of the First World War (1913). She published around a staggering 1,500 names right up until 1969, just one year before she died aged 93.   

And of course, the remarkable Marianne North, the phenomenal plant illustrator who travelled alone across the world in the late 1800s to create an incredible amount of botanical art. In the Marianne North gallery at Kew, 833 of her pieces line the walls in geographical order. 

The women who make Kew 

At RBG Kew, the contribution of women to scientific research continues.  

We’re proud that more women than men make up the staff of Kew’s Science Directorate, currently almost 60% women to 40% men.  

Kew’s first Director and Deputy Director of Science are also women – Professor Kathy Willis and Professor Monique Simmonds.  

A cause for celebration 

Timed perfectly with this auspicious year, I will speak at the 230th Anniversary of the Linnean Society: A celebration of our First Female Fellows on Wednesday 21 March.  

I will talk about Kew's research on women in botanical science. The Linnean Society, first established in 1788 as a forum to discuss and advance the life sciences, first inducted women 100 years ago with 15 fellows.  

Women’s participation in the Society has increased dramatically since then, as has their contributions to scientific research.  

Kew is pleased and proud to support this positive trend through its own women in science, all of whom are working towards our mission; to unlock the potential of plants and fungi around the world.