Plant scientist and Newnham alumna Agnes Arber FRS was commemorated with a Blue Plaque at her childhood home today, in recognition of the importance of her contribution to both the philosophy and practice of science.
Agnes Arber (Robertson, 1879-1960) took her first degree at UCL, and then continued to Newnham College for her second degree, matriculating in 1899. She took first class honours in the Natural Science Tripos, although the restriction on women students at the time meant that she was not awarded a degree from the University of Cambridge. At the time, the ‘new botany’ was flourishing in Cambridge and elsewhere in the UK, with major advances being made in our understanding of genetics, morphology and physiology. There was a new emphasis on an experimental approach: in the year Arber graduated, Newnham’s E R (Becky) Saunders and William Bateson published their paper on “The facts of heredity in the light of Mendel’s discovery.”
After further research at UCL, Arber married paleobotanist Edward Newall Arber, and returned to a Fellowship at Newnham. There, she published her most widely-known work, Herbals, a survey of the historical works on the medicinal use of plants. Arber began to reflect and publish on the philosophy of science, alongside a series of important works on plant morphology. Publications included The Monocotyledons, Water Plants and The Gramineae, all for Cambridge University Press.
With the changing face of science in early 20th century Cambridge, Arber found herself working from a laboratory at home, without membership of an institution. After the death of her husband, she found herself both a respected scientist and a single parent. She had the financial resources to continue her work unfunded – but it is likely that a man with her achievements would have been offered a formal academic position. Her daughter, geologist Muriel Arber, remembered that “She snatched time from her writing to do the necessary minimum of domestic things, not the other way round.”
Despite the barriers to her research achievements, in 1946 Arber was elected to the Royal Society, the third woman to become a Fellow, and was also made a Corresponding Member of the Botanical Society of America. In 1948 the Linnean Society awarded Arber their Gold Medal, the first woman to be receive this award. More unexpectedly, a gin has been created and named in her honour.
English Heritage has called for more nominations of distinguished women to be commemorated with blue plaques, especially in the areas of science, sport and the fine arts, where women are particularly poorly represented. Around 80 people a year are nominated and about 12 plaques are put up.
This plaque to Arber is a recognition not only of one remarkable scientist, but of the broader network of women scientists within which she made her achievements.