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Biographies

Marjory Stephenson (1885 - 1948)

In 1945 Marjory Stephenson became one of the first two women Fellows of the Royal Society. She was a microbiologist; the other, Kathleen Lonsdale, was a physicist turned crystallographer. It was a historical landmark in the progress of women scientists, but it is interesting to see how slowly Cambridge University responded. Although she had been lecturing to Part II students since 1925 and had been awarded an ScD (or, in the custom of the time, the title of the degree) in 1936, Marjory Stephenson was not made a University Lecturer until 1943 (when she was 58), and not promoted to Reader (the first Reader in Chemical Microbiology) until 1947, the year before she died.

Marjory was born at Burwell, ten miles from Cambridge, the youngest child of a scientifically-minded fruit farmer. With encouragement from both parents, and with the rare advantage of education in a good school – Berkhamsted High School for Girls – where she could study science, Marjory followed her sister to Newnham in 1903. They were early students, still in the generation of long skirts, addressing their friends by their first names only after a formal approach, having to keep on desperately best behaviour. They lived at the edge of Cambridge life, with practical classes taught in separate women’s laboratories, and chaperoned if they were going to lectures outside Newnham. But the later photograph of Marjory outside her lab with short hair and short skirt is symbolic of the revolution in women’s life and education in the first half of the twentieth century. It was in the year she died that women became full members of the University.

Progress in Marjory’s profession was not easy in any way. Her first ambition, to go into medicine, was checked by lack of funds, and it was only after a spell of teaching domestic science that she was able to move to academic life through teaching the biochemistry of nutrition at University College. The next check was the 1914 war, when she left for the Red Cross work that earned her an MBE and turned her into a pacifist. It was when she went back to Newnham after the war to work in Gowland Hopkins’s laboratory (on annual grants, for she had no fixed job) that she achieved her great distinction as a researcher and an inspiring teacher. She worked first on fat-soluble vitamins, an interest that led, through work on the fat metabolism of the timothy grass bacillus, to more general studies of the biochemical activities of bacteria; she developed great skills as an experimenter, using a wide variety of technical methods, both biochemical and microbiological. Her book Bacterial Metabolism became a standard text, last reprinted in 1966; it is, in Dorothy Needham’s words, ‘animated throughout by the imaginative insight which enabled her to consider the microbe, not as a useful device or as a pest to be eliminated, but as a living organism going about its own legitimate business’.

Friends remembered Marjory’s liveliness, her love of travel and of her garden (returning to her heritage of scientific approach to fruit trees) as well as her impressive ability. Recognition came slowly but it lasted.

Jenifer Glynn, 2008

To read further

  • Marjory Stephenson, 1885-1948, by Joan Mason, in Cambridge Women, ed.Edward Shils & Carmen Blacker, CUP 1996
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