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Blue plaque honours pioneering Cambridge botanist Dr Agnes Arber





Cambridge’s newest blue plaque is being installed to honour the pioneering botanist Dr Agnes Arber.

The third woman - and first female botanist - to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, Dr Arber spent a large proportion of her career working in a small laboratory in her own house at 52 Huntingdon Road, rather than having a formal position and space within the University of Cambridge, due to its administration at the time.

At the unveiling of Dr Agnes Arber's blue plaque at Cambridge University Botanic Garden are, from left, Prof Anne Ferguson-Smith, of the University of Cambridge, Penny Heath, of Cambridge Past, Present and Future, Lucy Pollard, Agnes Arber’s great niece, and mayor Cllr Baiju Thittala Varkey. Picture: Chris Loades, University of Cambridge
At the unveiling of Dr Agnes Arber's blue plaque at Cambridge University Botanic Garden are, from left, Prof Anne Ferguson-Smith, of the University of Cambridge, Penny Heath, of Cambridge Past, Present and Future, Lucy Pollard, Agnes Arber’s great niece, and mayor Cllr Baiju Thittala Varkey. Picture: Chris Loades, University of Cambridge

The plaque is being installed at her former home and a celebration was held at Cambridge University Botanic Garden on 30 May to celebrate her work.

It marks the 300th anniversary of the appointment of the first professor of botany at Cambridge, and is a year of celebration for the university’s Department of Plant Sciences.

Sam Brockington, professor of evolutionary biology and curator at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, said: “The university’s rich legacy in botany is marked by notable discoveries across many areas of the plant sciences. This year of celebrations is highlighting some of our scientific achievements including the work of Agnes Arber.

“We are delighted to be supporting a blue plaque to recognize her work. During the unveiling, Cambridge University Botanic Garden announced a new sponsored annual Agnes Arber PhD thesis prize for comparative biology. We hope this prize will support the next generation of pioneering botanists, following in the footsteps of Agnes.”

The Cambridge & District Blue Plaque Scheme is run by the charity Cambridge Past, Present & Future.

Its chief executive, James Littlewood, said: “The scheme recognises people and events that have made a significant impact on our area, the UK or, indeed, the world. We are very pleased that the 39th plaque will be put on the Cambridge house where Agnes not only lived, but where she set up a laboratory and did so much of her most important work.”

Agnes Arber by Walter Stoneman. Picture: National Portrait Gallery (editorial licence)
Agnes Arber by Walter Stoneman. Picture: National Portrait Gallery (editorial licence)

Plant morphologist Dr Arber, who won the Linnean Society gold medal, was born Agnes Robertson on 23 February 1879, the first child of Agnes Turner and Henry Robertson.

Aged eight, she attended the North London Collegiate School for Girls, renowned for providing girls with a serious education, rather than a 'finishing' in social graces, and had a strong commitment to teaching science.

Ethel Sargant, a plant morphologist from Girton College, Cambridge, came to read papers at the school’s science club and Agnes went on to work in her laboratory in the garden of her Reigate home during holidays.

She completed a degree at University College London (UCL) before studying at Cambridge, where she attended Newnham College. But in 1899, women were not members of the university, admitted to practical classes in laboratories or awarded degrees.

She returned in 1902 to Ethel Sargant's laboratory and a year later published her first paper in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, called 'Notes on the anatomy of Macrozamia heteromera'.

Returning to UCL as a research student carrying out research on gymnosperms, she was awarded a DSc in 1905.

Shortly after being appointed as a lecturer in August 1909, she left UCL and married Edward Newell Arber, moving to Cambridge.

In 1912, Dr Arber was appointed to a one-year research fellowship at Newnham College, and published her first book, Herbals, a survey of beautiful books that were key to botanical studies for several centuries and proved important for naming and classifying plants for medicinal purposes.

In July 1912 the couple's only child, Muriel, was born.

Dr Arber’s husband died in 1918, aged 48, and Dr Arber did not remarry, but carried on with her research, largely unpaid, as a single parent.

Muriel said of her mother: “She snatched time from her writing to do the necessary minimum of domestic things, not the other way round.”

Before Ethel Sargant’s death, she asked Dr Arber to take over the production of a book for the Cambridge Botanical Handbooks series.

In 1925, she published The Monocotyledons about a group of plants that formed a strong strand of Dr Arber's empirical research. It was followed by Water Plants, published by Cambridge University Press in 1920, and The Gramineae in 1934.

For 17 years, Dr Arber worked in Newham’s Balfour Laboratory, established in 1884 with £1,000 in donations, because while women were permitted to attend lectures, the university’s laboratory demonstrations and practical classes were generally closed to them.

Teaching was provided mainly by female research fellows of Newnham and Girton Colleges, who also undertook their own biological sciences research in the Balfour Laboratory.

But as women gained increasing access to university resources, the laboratory went into decline and when the space was sold to the university, Dr Arber was unable to continue her work there.

She was offered the laboratory equipment she had used for her home at 52 Huntingdon Road and thanked the principal for the “opportunity of quiet and independent research this afforded” - something she no doubt had learned from her time in Ethel Sargant's garden laboratory.

In 1950, she published The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form, linking her practical experience with a discussion of her ideas about the philosophy of plant morphology.

A review in Nature on her next book, The Mind and the Eye, noted: “Mrs Arber’s book stands out as a work of genuine scholarship and special timeliness. It ought to be prescribed reading for every fresh graduate who proposes to begin research.”

An obituary of Dr Arber in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London said: “To many she was the ‘lady of botany’ and young biologists should think of an acute and powerful observer wrapt in penetrating and ever more powerful philosophy, who grasped the world without travel, and how they attract into the circle of discussion such another if they are fortunate.”

Dr Arber died on 22 March 1960 in Cambridge.

Lucy Pollard, Dr Arber’s great niece, said: “Our family are delighted that she is to receive this belated recognition. I remember her as a kind, quiet, unassuming person: I’m ashamed that, as a child, I had no idea that she was also a distinguished scholar.”




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