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BBSRC Women in Science and Innovation: Winifred Elsie Brenchley

Winifred was Head of the Botany Department, Rothamsted Experimental Station, a post she held until her retirement in 1948. Copyright: Rothamsted Research

Women in research have changed the world and members of our research community have played an important role in shaping the course of history with their commitment to the bioscience world.

To celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day we are showcasing some of the incredible female researchers that have been an inspiration to us all.

Described as a pioneering agricultural scientist, Winifred Brenchley was a trail blazer - a woman who made a name for herself working in a specialist subject that at the time was totally male dominated.

Although she died over half a century ago her memory lives on through her work, becoming Britain's leading authority on weeds in the early twentieth century.

Copyright: National Portrait Gallery
The portrait of Winifred Elsie Brenchley that resides with the National Portrait Gallery. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Winifred was born in London in 1883 and despite being partially deaf after contracting measles as a child she became the first woman scientist to be employed at an agricultural institution in the UK and was instrumental in opening up the field to women.

Her story begins in 1903 when she completed a two year course at Swanley Horticultural College. Back then there was a growing demand for horticulturalists and agriculturalists in the British colonies and it was felt that women were best suited to the role.

Winning a Scholarship took her to the famous Rothamsted Experimental station in Harpenden, an important research facility still supported today by BBSRC.

At Rothamsted she became the first woman to work there in the 60-year history of the laboratory’s existence.

In a statement that resonates to this day, “she was appointed, 'because the funds available would not have attracted a suitable man.”

She broke through the traditional male barriers and was highly respected by the scientific community, admired for her close observation, faithful recording, intellectual honesty and loyalty, always ensuring that any credit for research should go to the right person.

She certainly made a name for herself at Rothamsted. The quality of her work led her to become a permanent employee as the head of the Botany Department, a post she held until her retirement at 65.

In 1920 her ‘Weeds of Farmland’ was published and was the first comprehensive study of weeds in the UK. Her findings on growing plants in water culture became widely used in the field.

Throughout her career she picked up a number of accolades. She received her BSc from University College London in 1905, and was awarded a DSc from the University of London in 1911 for her thesis on the strength and development of wheat grains. She became a Fellow of University College in 1914 and was awarded the OBE in 1948, the year she retired.

Her scientific work proved to be of great value during the war helping to tackle the urgent need to increase crop yields to feed the British population during wartime. 

She retired in 1948 and was presented with a leather bound handmade book containing the signatures of all her colleagues, the volume is held in the Rothamsted Archives. 

In retirement she returned to her love of gardening and sadly died after suffering a severe stroke in 1953.

As a clear indication of her important achievements and the role she played in leading the way for women in science research a photo of Winifred Brenchley is owned by the National Portrait Gallery – preserving an image and memory of the woman that was a truly pioneering agricultural scientist.



UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: feature Rothamsted Research women skills and training people