6 March 2020

Women who transformed the world of plants and fungi

In honour of International Women’s Day, learn about leading female plant and fungal scientists, illustrators and horticulturist throughout history.

By Grace Brewer

Women gardeners at Kew Gardens, 1915

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)

Beatrix Potter was a remarkable woman.

Widely recognised as an excellent writer and illustrator of some of the most beloved children’s books, such as The Tales of Peter Rabbit, many of us may not appreciate that she was also a scientist fascinated by fungi.

Beatrix studied and conducted experiments on fungi reproduction and development.

She also used a microscope to draw hundreds of highly detailed illustrations of fungi.

The very first illustration in Britain of the fungus Tremella simplex was created by Beatrix Potter.

Illustration by Beatrix Potter of a fungus
Illustration by Beatrix Potter of a fungus © Wikimedia Commons

Elsie Wakefield (1886 – 1972)

The entire works of Elsie Wakefield, fungus scientist (mycologist) and illustrator, can also be found in our Library, Art and Archives collection.

Elsie was Head of Kew Mycology in 1915 and Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium from 1945 to 1951. 

She published around 100 papers on fungi and plants and wrote two field guides on British fungi.

Elsie also named and described many new species of fungi and produced beautiful watercolour illustrations of the species she identified.

Elsie Wakefield, Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium 1945-51 and her colleague Arthur Cotton, Keeper of the Herbarium 1922-46, examine fungi brought into the Herbarium for identification
Elsie Wakefield, Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium 1945-51 (right) and her colleague Arthur Cotton, Keeper of the Herbarium 1922-46 (left), examine fungi brought into the Herbarium for identification
Watercolour illustrations of fly agaric (Amanita muscarias) by Elsie Wakefield. The toadstool is bright red with white spots.
Watercolour illustrations of fly agaric (Amanita muscarias) by Elsie Wakefield

Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)

The American scientist, Barbara McClintock, was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

This was for her pioneering work that led to the discovery of ‘jumping genes’. 

In the 1940s and 50s, Barbara looked at how these mobile genes worked in plant cells. 

She found that they were involved in inheritance of characteristics in plants.

Elizabeth Blackwell (1707 – 1758)

Scientists at Kew used the International Plant Names Index’s author database to research the contributions women have made to naming and describing plants.

This research revealed that Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to publish a plant name under the binomial naming system in 1757.

This naming system, which is still used to this day, was devised by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 and means that scientific names comprise of two parts: genus and species.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first women to publish a plant name under the binomial naming system in 1757.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first women to formally publish a plant name in 1757 © Wikimedia Commons

Other prolific female plant authors

Our scientists also found that Harriet Margaret Louise Bolus (1877 – 1970)  is the most published female plant author.

From just before the First World War (1913) to the year before she died aged 93 (1969), Harriet was involved in publishing over 2,200 new species names.

Dr Charlotte Taylor (1955 – present) is another of the top ten female plant authors.

She works at the Missouri Botanical Garden and continues to publish new species names to this day.

Marianne North (1830 – 1890)

Many botanical artists have had a huge impact on our current understanding of plants.

Marianne North was a remarkable plant hunter and botanical painter.

She created over 800 paintings of more than 900 species of plants during her solo travels across the world in the late 1800s.

These masterpieces now line the walls of the Marianne North gallery here at Kew.

Paintings on display in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew
Paintings on display in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew © RBG Kew

Sarah Anne Drake (1803 – 1857)

Another highly accomplished botanical artist who produced an enormous body of work, including an astonishing 1,100 plates for The Botanical Register, was Sarah Anne Drake.

Sarah specialised in orchids and contributed to one of the most famous orchid books ever published, James Bateman's Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala.

The Australian orchid Drakea is named in her honour.

Illustration of orchid plant and flowers by Sarah Ann Drake
Botanical illustration of an orchid by Sarah Ann Drake © RBG Kew

Margaret Mee (1909 – 1988)

One of the first people to draw attention to the impact of large-scale mining and deforestation on the Amazon Basin was Margaret Ursula Mee, MBE.

She was a British botanical artist who specialised in plants from the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest and produced hundreds of paintings on the flora that grew there with a particular interest on bromeliads and orchids. 

In fact, at 42 years old, she made the adventurous decision to live right in the Amazon and study local species for 30 years. There, she survived storms and insect bites to become a passionate defender of the rainforest. 

Horticulturists during the First World War

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Kew employed female horticulturists to replace the men who had left to join the war effort.

The women were first appointed to the Herbaceous Grounds, Rock Gardens and Flower Gardens, and later went on to work in the glasshouses as more men left Kew. 

Over 30 women gardeners worked at Kew until 1918; they were instrumental to maintaining the Gardens during the war.

During their time at Kew, the women gardeners also attempted to improve working conditions by petitioning on issues such as hours of work and rates of pay on behalf of both women and men.

Photo of Kew's women gardeners taken in November 1916
Kew's women gardeners, November 1916 © RBG Kew

Showcasing the remarkable achievements of women across the world may inspire the next generation of extraordinary female scientists, artists, and horticulturists, celebrated on International Women's Day for years to come.

Researcher in Palm House looking at Bamboo

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