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Department of Genetics


Edith Saunders

Christine Alexander, former Departmental Librarian, compiled seven wonderful documents regarding the life of Edith Rebecca Saunders.

1. Private Life

2. Balfour Lab

3. Women in Science

4. My Colleague

5. Mother of Genetics

6. Societies

7. British Assosiation

E Saunders

Edith Saunders entered Newnham College, Cambridge in 1884, on a scholarship from her home town of Birmingham. Coming up to Newnham at the same time was Mary Bateson, and undertaking the third year of her studies in Natural Sciences was Anna Bateson. These were the younger sisters of William Bateson, who had himself only graduated in 1882. Unusually for the time, Bateson fully appreciated women’s academic capabilities and was able to recognise those who were exceptional. Thanks no doubt to her friendship with his sisters, Saunders began a significant scientific collaboration with Bateson which lasted until his death in 1926. Their first verifiable joint research project in 1895 was obviously prefaced by earlier collaborations. It would be fair to say, despite her evident aptitude, that had this connection not been made, Edith would probably never have worked in the developing field of genetics, and would almost certainly not have gained even the limited recognition she has today.

Despite attaining First Class Honours in Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1888 [specialising in Physiology], Edith had to be content with a Certificate. Although women at Cambridge had been officially allowed to sit Tripos exams since 1881, they were not awarded degrees, and were not considered part of the University (essentially because of reluctance to allow women a vote in the Senate and thus potentially influence University affairs, they had to wait until 1948 to become full members). Nevertheless she was able to undertake postgraduate research with a Bathurst Scholarship after ‘graduating’, and at the same time secured a post as Demonstrator in Botany at the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women. Thus she was one of the few women to have studied at Cambridge who managed to secure employment in anything other than school teaching.

The Balfour Biological Laboratory was established with funding obtained by Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick, in order to prepare women from Newnham and Girton Colleges for Natural Sciences Tripos exams on as equal terms as possible with men. Women were only allowed to attend lectures at the discretion of each lecturer, and obtaining places in practical sessions was almost impossible, given the already overcrowded conditions in the few labs available. Initially Practicals in Physiology, Botany, Comparative Anatomy, and Elementary Biology were offered in the Lab. Although Edith had specialised in Physiology for the NST, the Lab already had a Demonstrator in that subject. Edith was, however, amply qualified to support teaching in Botany, having attended Botany lectures as an Undergraduate, and through her work assisting Bateson.

Saunders became ‘Head Demonstrator with charge of the Balfour Laboratory’ in 1899, when the previous incumbent almost inevitably resigned after getting married. She retained that post until 1914, when the Lab closed for teaching since women were now allowed into Practical classes in all offered subjects, albeit often with some degree of reluctance. Since Edith’s involvement with the study of Botany there, class sizes had increased considerably; in most years they were more than double those for other subjects. She was also a Lecturer at Newnham College itself from 1892 to 1925, and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Girton from 1904-1914, and at Newnham from 1918-1925. Such was the value of Edith’s teaching support that, unusually for a woman, she was even employed as a Demonstrator in the Department of Botany in the University from 1918-1927. Ecologist Sir Harry Godwin acknowledged her contribution:

‘[I became convinced] of the supreme value to the biological student of examining fresh material for himself at every opportunity. In later years, when I was myself in charge of the elementary laboratory, no one more convincingly proved this than the formidable ‘Becky’ Saunders, who gathered all the Newnham and Girton students under her care and made certain that they saw for themselves every last bit of evidence the fresh material might yield: the rest of my demonstrators toiled far behind her in assiduity and skill’.

She undoubtedly played a key role in organising effective teaching in biological sciences for women students, whose academic development the University did not regard as its responsibility. Many of her students attested to the enormous value of the rigorous study she encouraged; for example M D Ball, a student from 1908-1911 wrote ‘In the old Balfour Lab we rejoiced in her wonderfully exact and clear teaching, and the orderly marshalling of the facts by which she led us to understand and delight in the ways of plants’ ['Newnham Anthology']

In 1897, Saunders published the results of series of breeding experiments in Biscutella laevigata, and showed how crosses between hairy and smooth-leaved plants did not produce a blended offspring ('On a discontinuous variation occurring in Biscutella laevigata' (1897) Procs R Soc 62: 11-26). This went against the ideas upheld by W F R Weldon and many others at the time who believed in the neo-Darwinian principles of gradualistic evolution. Weldon maintained that natural selection acts upon minute and fortuitous variations, which clashed with the ideas of Bateson, who viewed speciation as abrupt changes in form [‘Treasure your exceptions’ being the defining phrase from the inaugural lecture he gave on being awarded a Professorship in Biology in 1908. He goes on to add '...when there are none, the work gets so dull that no-one cares to carry it further']

Bateson and Saunders began working together to devise an experimental set-up utilising four plant species that exhibited similar variations to those she had seen in Biscutella. This work again showed a sharp discontinuity in forms and prompted Saunders and Bateson to avidly search for a theory that could explain their findings.

Then in May 1900 Bateson experienced an epiphany. His colleague C C Hurst had been sent two papers by Hugo de Vries, in which he discussed Mendel's findings. Reading these, Bateson immediately recognised a close link to the theories he was grasping for, and read Mendel's original paper, published in 1866, which happened to be held in the University Library. The usual story, which comes from Bateson's wife Beatrice [in 'William Bateson, Naturalist'], is that he read Mendel's 'actual paper on peas' on a train journey to London, where he was due to give a speech at the Royal Horticultural Society. She wrote that he immediately amended the contents of his planned speech, and the format of his research thereafter ... It is true that he changed the direction of his research from then on, but not that he re-wrote his speech on the train!

To expand his work and to validate Mendel’s laws conclusively Bateson recognised that it would be necessary to undertake a very large number of experiments on different organisms. This breadth of research would necessitate input from many more researchers. However, Bateson, as something of a Cambridge ‘outsider’, was always low on funds, meaning he was unlikely to attract male assistants. Women who had passed through Cambridge, on the other hand, found it difficult to obtain employment, partly because the value of the Certificate they obtained was unclear, but mainly because it was almost universally unthinkable at the time to employ a woman in a job a man could do. With the help of Saunders’ contacts, mainly within Newnham College, they managed to recruit a strong group of female students who were reading, or had completed, the Natural Science Tripos. Bateson eventually obtained some money to employ an assistant, and in 1904 Reginald Crundall Punnett [who became the first Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics in 1912] joined the group as the only paid employee. The women were mostly supported by College salaries or Scholarships.

From this initially small group grew the ‘school of genetics’ that produced convincing evidence for the application of Mendelism to the understanding of heredity. Between 1902 and 1908, Saunders and Bateson published a series of four Reports to the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society. Bateson, of necessity an opportunist, used the requirement to produce a report to the Royal Society, from which he received some funding, as the platform to publicise their research, recognising that such lengthy reports would likely be rejected by the standard scientific journals. The reports by Saunders and Bateson signified the beginning of the era of Mendelism, with their ideas finally being accepted by at least some of the members of the scientific establishment, and becoming a dominant theme until the ascendancy of the chromosomal theories of T H Morgan and colleagues working with Drosophila.

Bateson left Cambridge, having been awarded funding to establish the John Innes Horticultural Institute at Merton in 1910. Edith Saunders remained at Newnham College and continued to work on plant genetics, publishing many papers under her own name: an unusual circumstance for a woman at a time, when women's major research contributions often went unacknowledged; at best they might expect a citation as a second author. Saunders had been Bateson’s closest collaborator at Cambridge, and he frequently highlighted her contribution in published papers and in talks.

E Saunders full photo

Thanks to Bateson again, Saunders was established in an allotment in the Botanic Garden, and continued in her experiments there for many years. Later, she switched interest to the study of floral morphology, culminating in the production of two volumes of work which became standard texts for botany students (’Floral Morphology: A new outlook’, 1937; 1939). Since few people had the stamina or patience to conduct experiments as detailed as Saunders did, her research papers were often cited too. She published details of the anatomy of 249 species.

Edith Saunders was one of the first women to be elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1905, sitting on its Council from 1910-1915, and becoming the first female Vice-President in 1912-13. She became a Fellow of the Royal Horticulture Society in 1925, but her work was acknowledged prior to that when she was awarded its Banksian medal at the Third International Conference on Genetics in 1906. In his Presidential Address at this meeting, Bateson significantly declared ‘I suggest for the consideration of this Congress the term Genetics’. After the medals were awarded at the banquet, Bateson acknowledged Edith’s contribution:

‘Had it not been for the work that has been done by my friends and pupils – first of all by my colleague Miss Saunders, whose name has been so deservedly honoured to-night … I could never have dared, without that force behind me, to have asserted that Mendelian research has been and is of the importance that we now know it must possess’.

She was elected a life member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1903, and over subsequent years participated in its annual meetings, speaking or contributing several papers. She acted as President of the Botany Section in 1920 - only the second female Section President. She was Vice President of Section G (Genetics and Cytology) at the Fifth International Botanical Congress, held at Cambridge in 1930.

In its report on the 1916 annual BAAS meeting, the journal Nature stated that Saunders ‘..presented a report on means of bringing into closer contact those engaged in scientific breeding experiments and those commercially interested in the results … scientific workers might well unite to form a genetics association’ [Nature 98: 238] The Genetical Society was duly founded in 1919, ‘… largely through the energy of Miss E R Saunders’ [Nature 103: 432], she acted as Treasurer for many years and was President from 1936 to 1938.

When she died in 1945, Edith Saunders was about to resume her research after making a considerable contribution in support work during the War. She was almost 80 years old. J B S Haldane felt sufficiently exercised about the omission of her work, which he considered was of the ‘first importance’ in genetics, in her initial Nature obituary, that he added his own tribute [Nature 156 : 385] in which he stated:

 ‘It is clear that she and Bateson had independently discovered some at least of Mendel’s laws before his work was known to them.

She must in fact be regarded as the ‘mother’ of British plant genetics’.