Yesterday, a Blue Plaque was unveiled to the botanist, and philosopher and historian of botany, Agnes Arber (1879-1960). This event both paid tribute to a pioneer who made a significant mark in her field and reflects the English Heritage scheme’s ambition to increase the numbers of women and other under-represented groups commemorated by its plaques. I am a member of the Blue Plaque panel and was delighted to lead the speeches at the unveiling in Primrose Hill.
Arber, born Agnes Robertson, researched the physical forms and microscopic structures of living and fossil plants, publishing some seventy scientific articles and eight books over a long career. She investigated several plant families, including cereals and grasses, seed-producing and flowering plants, and their places within taxonomy and evolutionary history. In her sixties she became the first woman to win the medal of the Linnaean Society and the third to be a fellow of the Royal Society.
She wrote, in 1916, that should an alien visit Earth it might think of science as “some elixir which could be bought for hard cash and which would ensure salvation to any nation obtaining it in sufficient quantities.” She nevertheless saw good research as “an expression of the personality” of the scientist.
While part of the shift to a more experimental approach to botany, Arber was distinctive in also drawing on philosophy and history. These were fields she contributed to in their own right, particularly on the nature and origins of biological research. Her book Herbals, their Origin and Evolution remains a standard, and an admiring obituarist wrote of her “breadth of outlook, philosophical insight, profound learning, and meticulous attention to detail”. Her work remains of interest to 21st-century developmental botanists, philosophers and historians.
Arber lived in Cambridge for most of her career but the London links required for Blue Plaque recognition are also strong. She was born there and attended the academically ambitious North London Collegiate School for Girls (NLC), then sited off Camden Road, where she met old girl, Ethel Sargant, in whose home laboratory she began botanical research. It was in London, too, that Arber gained a first-class degree at University College, London, later returning to hold the Quain Studentship, gain her doctorate, work as a teaching assistant and, in 1908, lecturer.
Between her two UCL degrees, Arber attended Cambridge University, having won an entrance scholarship to Newnham College in 1899. She, again, achieved a first-class marks but, as a woman, was not awarded a degree. Nevertheless she returned to Cambridge the year after her appointment at UCL, on her marriage to the paleobotanist Edward A. Newell Arber. He had, apparently, enticed her to move by suggesting “that life in Cambridge offered unique opportunities for the observation of river and fenland plants.”
In Cambridge Arber was allowed space within Newnham College’s Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women, founded in 1884. She worked largely unfunded and after the Balfour closed in 1927 no satisfactory alternative space or position was found and she set up a laboratory at home. Her husband had died in 1918, leaving her to raise their six-year-old. Arber could, however, afford domestic help and her daughter remembered that her mother “snatched time from her writing to do the necessary minimum of domestic things” rather than vice versa.
Arber’s career was marked by an outstanding published output and much recognition but was also significantly shaped by the limited nature of the opportunities available. It was not until 1945 that any woman became a fellow of the Royal Society and only in 1948 that Cambridge University condescended to award degrees to women. Where routes were opening up, Arber took advantage.
She was the beneficiary of the determined efforts of women such as Frances Buss (founder of the NLC) and Emily Davies (founder of Girton College, Cambridge) to create establishments for girls’ and women’s education, including in the sciences, and to campaign for their right to university degrees and political representation. A generation earlier she would not have been able to gain degrees in London or work within a Cambridge laboratory.
However, the difficulties and need for careful career management are also clear. Family support and connections were essential, as were networks of female mentorship and collegiate encouragement. The fact that Aber was able to learn key techniques from Ethel Sargant was hugely important as, undoubtedly, was the community of women within the Balfour Laboratory and among the mixed attendance of meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), where Arber was active for many years.
The limits to her career are typical. She followed her husband to Cambridge, losing a professional position and influential colleagues at UCL. It was reported to be a happy marriage, and family trips helped inspire the couple’s daughter Muriel Agnes Arber to a geological career, but one wonders what Arber might have achieved had she remained in London. She could afford, and came to enjoy, life as a lone researcher but her career suffered because she did not, as the botanist F.O. Bower put it, “occupy a scientific position of note”.
The sense of women gaining just so much and no more is well illustrated by Arber’s career within the BAAS. Like other women, Arber found an opportunity here that was closed elsewhere. In 1921 she was made the botany section’s president only to then be persuaded to resign in the face of male botanists finding it “not agreeable” to have one female president directly follow another, Edith Rebecca Saunders having taken the role in 1920.
Such dynamics are, necessarily, under consideration when the Blue Plaque Panel deliberates nominations. Judging the significance and reputation of individuals within groups that were systematically denied opportunities – and, indeed, of those with every privilege that made a career in the public eye almost inevitable – is difficult.
The scheme was founded in 1866 and, predictably, the proportion of women honoured in its early decades was not high. It is still not high enough, partly because of this history; of the more than 900 plaques just 129 (around 14%) are for women. A sign of the slowly changing times is that nearly two-thirds of those went up after 1986, when English Heritage took over the scheme.
Recently the scheme has called for, welcomed and generated its own nominations for individuals from under-represented groups that meet the scheme’s criteria. Since a 2016 appeal for nominations, the Panel has for the first time been able to shortlist more women than men (51%), though the wait for permissions and annual schedule of unveilings means it will take time for this to translate into new plaques.
For a while yet, then, the proportion of plaques to women will remain less than ideal, meaning that commentators will – quite rightly – keep raising the issue. We rely on members of the public to continue to help by putting forward nominations. There is more work to be done: make your suggestions here.
Further reading: Kathryn Packer, ‘A laboratory of one’s own: the life and works of Agnes Arber, FRS, 1879–1960’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 51 (1997), 87–104.