Thursday 1 November 2018

Paying tribute to pioneering botanist Agnes Arber

The blue plaque for Agnes Arber
Image: R. Vickery
Back in September, a representative from English Heritage got in touch with BSBI to notify us of plans to unveil a new blue plaque to botanist Agnes Arber and to ask if BSBI representatives would care to attend the unveiling. We were delighted that Roy Vickery, former vice-president of the society, agreed to attend and represent BSBI. 

The unveiling went ahead today and here is Roy's report:

"A good number of historians of science, family members, neighbours and botanists gathered in the rain outside 9 Elsworthy Terrace, in the London Borough of Camden, to celebrate the unveiling of a plaque on the house in which the botanist Agnes Arber spent her early years, before her marriage and her move to Cambridge in 1909.  

"Arber's earliest known publication was a letter on 'Sir Walter Raleigh and evolution', published in Nature, in 1902, before she moved on to study palaeobotany, then studying the anatomy and morphology of monocots, before moving on to more philosophical works, her final, posthumous, publication being a contribution, 'Theoretical basis of plant morphology', in Peter Gray's The Encyclopaedia of biological Sciences (1961). In 1946 she was the third woman, and the first woman botanist, to elected to membership of the Royal Society.

Guests brave the rain to attend
the unveiling of the blue plaque
Image: Jon Agar
Roy also added a personal comment: "For many years I have been consulting Arber's book Herbals which, although first published in 1912, remains a reliable reference work, much appreciated when I'm working on plant folklore.'

The event also included speeches from several eminent female botanists including Dr Rebekah Higgitt, Senior Lecturer in History of Science at the University of Kent and member of the Blue Plaques Panel; Professor Paula Rudall, Head of the Dept. of Comparative Plant & Fungal Biology at RBG Kew; Kathryn Packer who wrote about Agnes here; and Dr Patricia Fara, President of the British Society for the History of Science.

I should add that several eminent BSBI botanists based outside London, who were sadly unable to attend today's unveiling, were keen to share their memories of Agnes Arber and her daughter Muriel.

Cambridge-based botanist Dr Chris Preston, author of the BSBI Handbook on Pondweeds and joint winner, with co-author Philip Oswald, of the 2013 Thackray Medal for their translation of John Ray's Cambridge Catalogue, said "I used her water plants book when writing the Pondweeds Handbook and have often consulted her book on herbals. It took scholars about 50 years before they began to appreciate the validity of her criticisms of Raven's biography of John Ray, made in an extremely perceptive review in Isis".

Kathryn Packer, Paula Rudall,
Patricia Fara, Rebekah Higgitt & others
gather to pay tribute to Agnes
Image: Jon Agar
Philip himself said "Rudi Schmid, for very many years until fairly recently the Reviews Editor of Taxonwrote at some length about Agnes Arber, and she was the subject of one of a series of biographical notes on founding and early members of what is now the Society for the History of Natural History". Rudi also wrote this obituary of Muriel of whom Philip says that he and his wife were "extremely fond. She was a lovely person, an expert on the geology of Lyme Regis and, despite appearing extremely diffident, was President of the Geologists' Association 1972-3.

Philip, who is also based in Cambridge, added "Agnes Arber befriended the young Willie Stearn when he was working at Bowes & Bowes (where the CUP bookshop now is). Muriel remembered him coming to Sunday lunches etc.; she was an only child and he was like an elder brother. Years later, in 1986, he helped Muriel republish her mother’s Herbals and wrote a new introduction for it".

Arthur Oliver Chater said of Agnes "It really should though be Cambridge that has a plaque, as she worked there most of her life! Yes, I had tea with her in the autumn term of 1952, she sitting in an armchair all the time and tea served by Muriel. But absurdly I cannot remember what was talked about. My father had been in contact with her, I think through F. W. Oliver (after whom I am called Oliver), and he had told her I was going up to Cambridge. I have long admired and learnt from her works, especially The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950).

The note below from English Heritage explains why the blue plaque is in London rather than Cambridge: 

History of London’s Blue Plaques Scheme: The London-wide blue plaques scheme has been running for 150 years. The idea of erecting 'memorial tablets' was first proposed by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863. It had an immediate impact on the public imagination, and in 1866 the (Royal) Society of Arts founded an official plaques scheme. The Society erected its first plaque – to poet, Lord Byron – in 1867. The blue plaques scheme was subsequently administered by the London County Council (1901-65) and by the Greater London Council (1965-86), before being taken on by English Heritage in 1986.

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