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Winifred Betts, Otago’s first specialist botany lecturer. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Botany Department archives,  r.6461, S14-586a.

There’s been a fair bit of discussion recently about sexism in science. This has inspired me to write about some of the women academics who led the way for women in the sciences at Otago. Their path was not always easy, and for many decades the university was more willing to employ gifted women than to promote them, but they made important contributions to teaching and research and deserve better attention. Some have already appeared on this blog: marine biologist Betty Batham here; and Muriel Bell, Elizabeth Gregory and Marion Robinson all feature on this post about nutrition research. Today’s story, therefore, concentrates on some of Otago’s other women scientists.

Winifred (Winnie) Betts was Otago’s first botany lecturer, though it is telling that botany officially dated its beginning as an independent department from 1924, when her male successor, John Holloway, commenced as lecturer. Botany classes were taught from the university’s early years by the professor of natural science, later the professor of biology, but these men specialised in zoology rather than botany, and it was irksome having to teach both subjects to the growing student body. Recent zoology honours graduate Winifred Farnie was assistant lecturer in biology in 1917 and 1918, but in 1919, after some years of trying, biology professor William Benham managed to persuade the university council that it was time that botany had its own lecturer. Winnie Betts was just 25 years old when she commenced this new position at the beginning of 1920. Born in Moteuka, she was educated at Nelson College for Girls and the University of Otago, graduating BSc in 1916 and MSc in 1917. She then received a National Research Scholarship – one was awarded at each university each year. This provided her with an income of £100 a year along with lab expenses so she could carry out independent research. In 1919, at a lecture to an admittedly partisan audience in Nelson, distinguished botanist Leonard Cockayne described Betts as ‘the most brilliant woman scientist in New Zealand’. In December 1920 Winnie Betts married another brilliant Otago graduate, the mathematician Alexander Aitken. Aitken, whose studies were interrupted by war service (he was badly wounded at the Somme), was by then teaching at Otago Boys’ High School. This was an era when most women left paid employment when they married, so it is intriguing that Winnie Aitken continued working as botany lecturer for some years. That came to an end in December 1923, when the Aitkens moved to Scotland to further Alexander’s academic career (he eventually became professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh).

Several other women were appointed to the biological sciences between the wars; all had started out at Otago as outstanding students. Marion Fyfe became a zoology lecturer in 1921 and when Beryl Brewin joined her in 1936 women thereby accounted for two-thirds of the zoology academic staff! They remained to teach generations of Otago students: Fyfe retired in 1957 and ‘live wire’ Brewin in 1963. Both were by then senior lecturers and Fyfe, described as ‘the backbone’ of the zoology department, had acted as its head on some occasions. Ella Campbell became assistant lecturer in botany in 1937, leaving to become the first woman academic at Massey University in 1945. An expert on liverworts, she was made a Dame in 1997 for her contribution as ‘a pioneer in the field of university botanic research’. When Campbell left, Brenda Slade (later Brenda Shore) became assistant lecturer in botany; she had just finished a BSc in the department. She later took leave to complete a PhD at Cambridge in her specialist field of leaf development, then returned to Otago, eventually retiring as associate professor in 1982. Two other biology students of that generation returned to Otago after overseas study and research. One was the aforementioned Betty Batham, who returned with a Cambridge PhD in 1950 to become first director of the Portobello Marine Biology Station, newly taken over by the university. Another was Ann Wylie, recruited back to Otago’s botany department in 1961 to take responsibility for teaching in the rapidly-developing field of cytology and genetics. Like her colleague Brenda Shore, with whom she had first taught in the botany department in 1945 when lecturer John Holloway became ill, Wylie eventually rose to the status of associate professor, retiring in 1987. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Wylie, who is still active and sharp-witted in her nineties. She recalls that women were well accepted in zoology and botany and she did not experience prejudice, though she also notes that women lecturers behaved as ‘honorary men’; it was they who had to adapt rather than the men. There was a strong sense of collegiality between women academics from various departments and they often socialised together.

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Agnes Blackie, photographed around the 1960s, at the end of her long career as a physics lecturer. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, c/nE5302/11A, S16-521e.

The physical sciences weren’t so welcoming of women staff in this period. The school of mines and departments of geology, mathematics and chemistry remained resolutely male until later in the twentieth century. Indeed, the only woman academic in the physical sciences at Otago for many decades was Agnes Blackie in physics. She was appointed assistant lecturer in the department in 1919, eventually retiring as senior lecturer in 1958, though she continued teaching part-time for some years after that. The petite Blackie, who fell in love with physics as an Otago undergraduate, stood out in this largely male domain. Long-serving physics technician Stan Hughes, who started in the mid-1920s, recalled: ‘In the distance I saw this schoolgirl who later turned out to be Miss Agnes Blackie …. Agnes was very quiet with very thin features and my first impression was that a couple of mutton pies would do her the world of good’. In her early years, working with students sometimes older than herself (including returned servicemen), she had to endure considerable teasing, but was a gifted teacher who earned the affection and respect of generations of students, especially those who struggled with physics. She taught a range of students in addition to those specialising in physics, such as physiotherapy students learning about electricity and radiation, music students studying acoustics and home science students learning about household electricity and appliances, energy and calories, ventilation and humidity. Many a future doctor or dentist only made it through their compulsory physics course thanks to Blackie’s helpful teaching.

Not all of Otago’s pioneering women scientists were home-grown. Englishwomen Winifred Boys-Smith and Helen Rawson were the founding staff of the new home science school, whose courses commenced in 1911. Both had completed the natural science tripos at Cambridge but were unable to obtain degrees because they were women. Boys-Smith was Otago’s – and New Zealand’s – first female professor and Rawson succeeded her in the chair of home science. Otago chemistry professor James Black, by then in his seventies, had his doubts about these women’s scientific abilities. The first two home science degree students later recalled that when they progressed ‘from Professor Black’s Chemistry to take Applied Chemistry under Miss Rawson, they were informed in no indefinite words as to his grave doubts of Miss Rawson’s knowledge of things chemical. “A fine lassie, but is she sound on the soda-ammonia process? I’ll put it down on paper for her,” said the dear old man’. Rawson’s ‘brilliant career’ at Cambridge and London evidently counted for nothing to him. Home science did, to some extent, segregate capable women from the ‘pure’ science courses, but it also offered them opportunities. The degree students took advanced courses in chemistry, and many went on to become school teachers in the pure sciences as well as home economics. Some became highly-regarded researchers and academics, either overseas (Neige Todhunter is a good example) or in New Zealand (such as Elizabeth Gregory and Marion Robinson, mentioned above).

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Helen Thomson (centre back) teaching a laboratory class on the chemistry of the household at the School of Home Science in 1936. Thomson was one of numerous women who made an academic career in science through the school. After completing undergraduate and master’s degrees there, she was appointed lecturer in 1931 and remained on staff for 30 years, taking leave for overseas research. She graduated with a PhD in textile chemistry from Leeds University in 1947. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Consumer and Applied Science records, 97-081/4, S16-521a.

Another English import was Betty Bernardelli, who arrived at Otago in 1948 and took charge of the psychology laboratory (then part of the philosophy department). She had qualifications from Oxford and Cambridge, and had been officer in charge of psychological testing in the vocational advice service of the Royal Air Force during the war. She came to New Zealand with her husband Harro Bernadelli, who became lecturer in the economics department; in 1961 they left Otago for posts at the University of Auckland. The appointment of Bernardelli, a married woman, represented progress; an earlier generation of women academics had been single on appointment and mostly resigned if they married (a notable Otago example was home science professor Helen Rawson, whose academic career ended on her marriage to geology professor Noel Benson in 1923). It would be many years, however, before most people welcomed the advent of married women on the academic staff. Margaret Loutit came from Australia to Otago in 1956, when her husband John Loutit was appointed lecturer in the microbiology department. Already armed with an MSc, she obtained part-time work as a botany demonstrator and then microbiology lecturer while working on a PhD. As the working mother of young children she experienced considerable criticism, often from other women (notably the wives of other academic staff). Her salary was mostly absorbed in paying for private childcare; there were no crèche facilities at that time. However, her hard work was rewarded with the completion of her PhD in 1966 and in the following year she became a full-time staff member. Margaret Loutit was a gifted teacher and productive researcher in soil and water microbiology; she also made important contributions to university administration. She was promoted to a personal chair in 1981. John Loutit had become a professor in 1970, so they had the then rare status of ‘professorial spouses’.

There were other scientific women who held academic posts in the medical school: noted researchers Marianne Bielschowsky and Barbara Heslop, for example. However, there isn’t room to do justice to their achievements here, so I’ll have to save those for another time …

Otago’s pioneering women scientists – some of whom ended their careers not so very long ago – achieved remarkable things in the face of considerable difficulties. In proving the capability of women in the academic world of science they made things a little easier for those who followed and I am delighted to be able to pay tribute to them here. Do you have any stories to share of women in science at Otago?

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