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Marjory Stephenson: Founder of Microbial Biochemistry

Marjory Stephenson was one of the few scientists who discovered a whole new field of research. The historian of biochemistry, Robert Kohler, has shown that the study of bacterial biochemistry was, in large part, defined by the work of Stephenson1. In this account, we endeavor to encompass highlights of her personal life and research work. For a more detailed description of her research work, we direct the reader to authoritative professional obituaries, such as those by Muriel Robertson2 and by Donald Woods3. The recent biography by Soňa Štrbáňová4 contains a much fuller account of Stephenson’s life and work.

Early Life

Stephenson was born 24 January 1885 at Burwell, a village near Cambridge, and she spent most of her life there. Her parents were mother Sarah Rogers and father Robert Stephenson, who was a farmer. Marjory Stephenson was more than eight years younger than the next youngest of her three siblings. She remarked how this age difference influenced her life:

Owing to position in my family, almost an ‘only child’ and somewhat of a little prig, I acquired a childish interest in science from my beloved governess [Anna Jane Botwright] and later from my father. I remember … hearing the facts of symbiotic nitrogen fixation from my father as we crossed a clover field [age about 10]5

Educated by a governess until the age of twelve, Stephenson then received a scholarship to attend the Berkhamsted High School for Girls6. After completing her secondary schooling at Berkhamsted, Stephenson’s mother insisted that she obtain a university education. Furthermore, her mother decided that Newnham College, a women’s college of the University of Cambridge, was where Marjory should go, just as her elder sister (Alice Mary) had done 14 years earlier to study history.

At Newnham College

Newnham College was founded in 1875 as the second women’s college of Cambridge University (the first being Girton). Located on the edge of the city of Cambridge, Newnham became more prominent for science than did Girton. Arriving at Newnham in 1903, Stephenson studied chemistry, physiology, and zoology. During those times, students at the Cambridge women’s colleges led separate and sheltered lives from the (male) university. For example, women students were not allowed to enter the University Science Laboratories. Instead, they were required to use the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women7 and Newnham’s own Chemistry Laboratory.

For chemistry, Stephenson was taught by the Newnham Lecturer in Chemistry, Ida Freund (1863–1914)8. Freund was the charismatic figure in chemistry at Newnham from 1890 to 19129. An earlier Newnham student, Catherine Holt, in a letter to her mother, had commented on Freund:

I attended my first lecture today; it was Chemistry; … Afterwards we adjourned for a couple of hours to the laboratory here; Miss Freund is the presiding genius, a jolly, stout German, whose clothes are falling in rags off her back. We made lots of horrible smells and got back here for lunch at a quarter past one10.

Though women students had been admitted to Cambridge University, they were barred from being formally granted degree status (this was not permitted until 1948). Instead, Stephenson, like the other women students of the time, had to be satisfied with taking and passing the final examination, called the Tripos11. She satisfactorily completed the Part I Natural Sciences Tripos in 1906.

Read the full chapter.

References:
1. Kohler R. E. Innovation in Normal Science: Bacterial Physiology Isis. 1985 76 162 181.
2. Robertson M. Marjory Stephenson. 1885–1948 Obit. Notices Fellows Roy. Soc. 1949 6 563 577.
3. Woods D. D. Marjory Stephenson Biochem. J. 1950 46 377 383.
4. Štrbáňová, S. Holding Hands with Bacteria: The Life and Work of Marjory Stephenson. Springer: Berlin, Germany, 2016.
5. Stephenson M. Personal Records, Royal Society, cited in Mason, J. The Admission of the First Women to the Royal Society of London Notes Records R. Soc. London 1992 46 284 285.
6. Williams, B. H. G. Berkhamsted School for Girls: A Centenary History 1888–1988. Hazel Watson and Viney: Aylesbury, England, 1988.
7. Richmond M. L. A Lab of One’s Own: The Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women at Cambridge University, 1884–1914 Isis.1997 88 422 455.
8. Mason, J. Marjory Stephenson 1885–1948. In Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits; Shils, E. and Blacker, C. , Eds.; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, 1996; p 115.
9. Wilson, H. Miss Freund. In A Newnham Anthology [2nd Ed.]; Phillips, A. , Ed.; Newnham College: Cambridge, England, 1988; pp 71– 72.
10. Letter, Holt, C. D. to Holt, L. , 12 October 1889. In Letters from Newnham College 1889–1892; Cockburn, E. O. , Ed.; Newnham College, Cambridge, England; 1987; p 11.
11. Tullberg, R. McW. Women at Cambridge; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, 1998; p 66.

This post is an excerpt from Marjory Stephenson: Founder of Microbial Biochemistry‘, The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Volume 2. Ladies in Waiting for the Nobel Prize.
Chapter Authors: M. F. Rayner-Canham, G. W. Rayner-Canham
Volume Editors: Vera V. Mainz, E. Thomas Strom
Publication Date (Web): December 14, 2018
Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

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