Marjory Stephenson’s Major Stepping Stones

Girton Laboratory
Women science undergraduates at work in the laboratory. Girton College, Cambridge

At its simplest, science is the attempt of man to understand the cosmos. As such, and in accordance with popular history, it is man that either drives science forward or backward. Note: man. Thus, in the history of science, the exclusion of women in the pantheon and practice of science is by and large prevalent. For example, ancient Athens was and is known to be the spring of early scientific thought, yet, women were barred from participating in public debates and lectures and were forced to veil themselves so as not to disturb the busy thinking men. Lavoisier lavished praise upon his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier,  for her important and paramount contributions to his work, but she is sadly forgotten: her husband’s prestige is all that garners precedence in posterity. Protagoras of Abdera hit upon a stark and sublime truth when he declared, “Of all things the measure is Man.”

No surprise then, when institutions that are publicly progressive actually harbor hidebound attitudes toward women. If the ancient centers of knowledge blocked women from public participation, so did and do modern academic institutions. While boasting alumni such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin – bolstering its claim as the premier science institution in the world – the University of Cambridge was the last university in England to welcome women with full membership (1948).

It is in this backdrop that a woman of immense scientific talent struggled, achieved success, and registered her name in the logbook of history’s greats as one of the first two women to become fellows of the Royal Society.

MarjoryStephensonMarjory Stephenson (1885-1948) was the youngest among four siblings in a family that made education premium. Her parents ingrained upon her a love for learning and a disciplined drive for excellence. Credit must be given, however, to someone outside the family for introducing science to the young Stephenson. Anna Botwright was employed as the family’s governess for 20 years, becoming the four siblings’ source of early education. Despite her poor unprivileged background, Botwright was a capable educator who inspired Stephenson’s early encounters with science.

The Berkhamsted School became Stephenson’s first formal academic bedrock when she turned 11. Being one of the few institutions at that time to teach women science, Stephenson excelled for six years in this environment eventually earning a spot in the University of Cambridge’s all-women Newnham College.

“Acquired a childish interest in science from my beloved governess and later from my father. Also a skeptical attitude towards orthodox religion from the same sources. I remember being told by my governess that the first chapter of Genesis was not literally true (age about 7) and hearing the facts of symbiotic nitrogen fixation from my father as we crossed a clover field (age about 10).”

-Marjory Stephenson

The University of Cambridge was very different then from what it is now. In those days, women were prohibited from entering the university’s laboratories and libraries. It was to the advantage of Newnham students that their college had its own chemistry laboratory (however ill-equipped compared to the university’s main ones). In Cambridge, Stephenson read chemistry, physiology, and zoology, which were Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos. She could not proceed further for the full program only admitted men. So after completing her coursework in 1906, she went to London, ruing the fact that she could not pursue her dream of studying medicine for lack of funds and opportunity. Stephenson studied and eventually taught domestic science at Gloucester Training College.

Domestic science, for whatever its worth, was an actual discipline (it is now named home economics). It may not match the mores of modern science, but it serves as a nasty reminder of how society, including the enlightened scientific establishment, relegated women into substandard pursuits – considering their talents only as essential for the maintenance of a good household. Women who could prepare a delicious dinner dish were held in higher esteem than those who can grow a culture in a petri dish.

But Marjory Stephenson had no time for such bunkum. Sexist predilections could not hamper the intellectual vigor that pushed her for much of her academic life.

After five long years of scientific stagnation teaching domestic science, an opportunity came in 1911. University College London called: would you like a place at our Institute of Physiology to research (and teach) the biochemistry of nutrition? A woman of the caliber of Stephenson could only reply in the affirmative mode: yes.

Major stepping stone #1: secured.

In University College London, Stephenson published a thick repertoire of papers on animal lactase, diabetes, and fat metabolism which were positively received by the scientific community. Her output went from strength to strength, eventually gaining her a Beit Memorial Fellowship grant in 1913, after just two years of research work.

Men, aside from politically dominating the sciences thus claiming on their own that they are the smarter sex, also do really stupid things. For example, one man shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggering a series of events that led stupid men of power to postulate: but what if we all go to war? And so they did. World War I started and the world’s superpowers were eager to try out their new big explosive toys against each other. Pandemonium ensued, as when men fight among themselves, they surely go over the top.

Perhaps owing to her years teaching domestic science, or simply just a tick of the old nationalism, or even the marriage of both, Stephenson volunteered to join the Red Cross in 1914. She was dispatched to run shelter kitchens, successfully managing food stations in Normandy, France and Salonika, Greece. She acquired accolades for outstanding service in Salonika as Chief Commandant of the Voluntary Aid Detachment, with various positive citations recognizing her excellent effort in managing the shelters, which led to her being awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

When the world realized the huge mess it just made and calmed down (for now), Stephenson went back to Cambridge taking up research duties in Frederick Gowland Hopkins’ laboratory.

Major stepping stone #2: secured.

Margaret stephenson with pet
Marjory Stephenson with Judith ©Newnham College Cambridge

Stephenson worked and remained in Cambridge for the rest of her life, living out a lifelong career marked by success and consistency. She continued her previous work on animal metabolism, then moved on to carve her own niche, the study of bacterial metabolism. Stephenson then attained a small degree of independence, as she was now a recipient of an annual Medical Research Council (MRC) grant. Fostering young scientists into excellence was also one of her famed attributes, as she tutored many who then went on to become field experts. One of whom was Margaret Whetham who she collaborated with on a series of studies. Moreover, what made Stephenson a special part of that laboratory team was her originality and skill: First, she was able to devise a technique to identify and isolate a pure and cell-free bacterial enzyme called lactic dehydrogenase from Eschirichia coli – the first person to ever do so. Second, with Leonard Strickland, she was able to identify the agents causing the foul stench in a sample secured from the River Ouse. Bacteria from this sample utilized hydrogenase (an enzyme) to produce methane and sulfur, both of which have rancid smells.

By now, Stephenson had already established herself as an authority in the growing field of bacterial metabolism (a field she pioneered). Despite scientific success, one fact still stood for consideration in the larger world – Stephenson was a woman. This fact forced Stephenson to stay semi-incognito by using the initials MS to sign her manuscripts. Then came 1936, the year when the University of Cambridge awarded her her long-deserved Sc.D. distinction. However, it was only nominal as she was refused full formal recognition because she was, again, a woman.

Whatever. Stephenson simply soldiered on. Even while handling research and advising duties, she finished a monograph titled Bacterial Metabolism in 1930, which she continued to update as the years went on. From a monograph, it became a full textbook when the updated version was published in 1939. The release of Bacterial Metabolism increased the reach of the field internationally, and it also became the official academic textbook for practitioners for many decades.

Major stepping stone #3: secured.

They say experience is the best teacher, but in the advent of the 1940s, it was clear that men were none the wiser. One mustachioed man wanted to kill all the Jews. Then another man kept on dropping the f-word (fascismo) in every sentence. Meanwhile, another guy interrupted everybody else’s siesta with a pronunciamento. Men in red said, “so be it”, then annexed some parts of Poland. Over on the other side of the world, successive emperors wanted to control the whole of Asia. They all came to the conclusion that they should all have a go at war, again. And so the prelude to World War II ended as the first act commenced. This time, it was deadlier, bloodier, and stupider.

Stephenson’s experiences in WWI prompted her to participate in anti-war campaigns in the 1930s. Her laboratory group even welcomed war refugees seeking scientific employment. One of whom was future Nobel Prize winner Hans Krebs (best known for the citric acid cycle or Krebs Cycle), who considered Stephenson as “the best of the whole lot.”

In contrast to the senseless onslaught and destruction in the world of men, Stephenson’s war years were spent organizing minds and talents. She, with many others, found the Society for General Microbiology (SGM), serving as its second president after Alexander Fleming. The year that the SGM was formally inaugurated, Stephenson received an election that was long long overdue.

The year was 1945, and something of a first was about to happen. But before that, some history is needed.

The Royal Society is known as one of science’s most prestigious bodies. Its fellows include the likes of Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Ludwig Boltzmann, and etc. Missing from its list of fellows were women.

In 1902 there was a motion to elect polymath Hertha Ayrton as a fellow. But a counter-motion flew saying that she was not eligible since she was a woman. To make things worse, she was a married woman, effectively making her election impossible due to the Common Law that considered women to be only under the supervision of their fathers or husbands, and not as independent and separate “persons”. Progress was incremental but really slow, and in 1919 women finally saw a glimmer of hope when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed. But even when the act was set into motion, no women were elected as fellows until J.B.S. Haldane raised the issue in an article in 1943. Haldane noticed that in the list of that year’s elected fellows, “The most striking omission is the name of any woman. . . The Society has no colour bar; it cannot exclude women indefinitely.”

The Society responded that they would welcome a woman candidate and asked Haldane if he could recommend names who were worthy of fellowship. Haldane replied: “I think the strongest claim is that of Dr Marjory Stephenson who was the first person in the world to do work on bacterial metabolism as exact as that on mammalian metabolism, and who has continued to do good work in this field.”

So it happened. Marjory Stephenson was included in the 1944 nominees for fellowship. The polls tallied around 376 votes: 336 were in favor, 3 in favor but with qualifications, and 37 were against. In the following year, Marjory Stephenson and Kathleen Lonsdale were officially the first women elected as Royal Society fellows.

Margaret Stephenson signature
Marjory Stephenson’s signature rests below Kathleen Lonsdale’s in the Royal Society Charter. Screengrab from Periodic Videos™

Her election in 1945 was both a case of a little bit too late and justice finally served. Being a woman disqualified her from many opportunities and distinctions that she duly deserved in her academic years. She was now 60 years of age, much too old to have her fellowship serve to her personal and research advantage. All those years pioneering and revolutionizing the field of bacterial metabolism passed like a whisper across the male-world of science, causing only a few heads to turn, and much fewer to take notice of its song. Stephenson did not make much of a fuzz about her election, as she opted to move to the countryside to stay away from the public. Aside from unnecessary gossip, she had a good reason for escaping publicity – at her current age, recognition meant much less than rest – her health was failing her, she was already diagnosed with breast cancer.

When the fanfare settled down, Stephenson silently returned to Cambridge and spent the remaining years of her life in active research. In 1947, the University of Cambridge finally named her reader in Chemical Microbiology, a position that she had long been deserving of. She also became the president of the SGM in that same year. Recognition slowly sauntered to catch up on her. So did death.

In December of 1948, Marjory Stephenson closed her eyes for the last time and took one final breath before taking a much deserved sleep. She would never wake up again. Never to wake up in a world that took so much from her, while turning a blind eye to her actual achievements. Never to wake up in a world that deprived her of her dream of becoming a medical doctor, while forcing her to remain in the domestic domain.

When the world closed its doors on Marjory Stephenson, she went micro and built her own. Little by little, she made tiny, major stepping stones, which today’s generation of scientists use as steps to find their way across the very big and very small world of microbiology.



Blacker, Carmen & Shils, Edward, eds. Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996

Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey & Rayner-Canham, Marlene. Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneer British Women Chemists, 1880-1949. 1st ed. London: Imperial College Press. 2009

Rose, Hilary. Love, Power and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1994

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