image showing some of Kew's female scientists
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Women leaders of the biological sciences and research at RBG Kew

In celebration of the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, on 11 February, we recall some of the pioneers of biological research and those making a difference today.

What is the History of Woman in Botany?

Women have been contributing to the field of botany for centuries, but it is not always easy to see their contributions if they are not specifically named. Some areas of research make tracking easier, for example when a herbarium specimen is made, the plant’s collector is usually cited.  Also, when plant taxonomists describe a new species, their name is attached as the author. This means that we have a record of plant name authors going back to 1753, the year from which our modern plant naming system dates.  

An analysis by Kew Scientists Heather Lindon and Maria Vorontsova, and Lauren Gardiner and Abigail Brady used the International Plant Names Index’s author database to find out the contribution of women to the science of naming and describing plants over the past 250 years.  More recently, this work has allowed us to look at some of the stories behind the earliest women who published plant names or made a significant contribution to botany.  

Before the widely-used Linnaean system of naming species was created in 1735 by Carl Linnaeus, Mary, Duchess of Beaufort (b. 1630), provided many specimens to Sir Hans Sloane, a naturalist whose collection later 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 4 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 Lawrance who illustrated three species of Rosa in 1799.  Helena Perpenti published the plant species Campanula rainerii in 1817, whilst simultaneously maintaining a career carrying out medical research and also having a large family with many children. The most prolific female plant author, Harriet Margaret Louise Bolus, began publishing just before the start of the First World War (1913) and published almost 1,500 names up until 1969, just one year before her death at 93 years of age.

At RBG Kew, the contribution of women to scientific research continues. More women than men comprise the staff of Kew’s Science Directorate, currently almost 60% women to 40% men. Kew’s Director and Deputy Director of Science are also women – Professor Kathy Willis and Professor Monique Simmonds. 

Kew's Director of Science, Professor Kathy Willis, and Deputy Director of Science, Professor Monique Simmonds

Dr. Maria Vorontsova, who is one of Kew’s leading scientists in the Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology department, is conducting research on grasses with a particular focus on tropical African diversity and poorly known lineages. Maria will speak at the 230th Anniversary of the Linnean Society: A celebration of our First Female Fellows on Wednesday 21 March where she will talk about her and her colleagues’ 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 involvement in the Society has increased markedly since then, along with women’s contributions to scientific research. Kew is pleased to support this positive trend through its own women in science, who are working to improve knowledge on the use and importance of plant and fungal species throughout the world.

Winifred Brenchley, elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1910. Image © Rothamstead Research Ltd.

Further information about the meeting is available via The Linnean Society of London.