• Categories: 19th Century, 20th Century

Winifred and Katherine looking at their research plants.

With thanks to Maggie Johnston for her Wikipedia entries about these two Harpenden scientists:

Katherine Warington was born in Harpenden, Hertfordshire on 5 September 1897, a twin and one of the five daughters of Helen Louisa Makins and the agricultural chemist Robert Warington FRS [Jnr]. She was educated at the all-women Holloway College, University of London graduating with a B.Sc (Hons) in Botany in 1921.

In 1928 she studied spectrographic methods of analysis under Professor Lundegårdh at Experimentalfältet, Stockholm. Her work on boron was the basis for her D.Sc. from the University of London.

Katherine Warington’s father had worked at Rothamsted Experimental Station. Here she began as a voluntary worker, much like visiting scientists today. She was then appointed to the Botany Department in 1921, working with Dr. Winifred Brenchley.
Warington’s work with boron came about because an entomologist wanted to find a way of making bean plants distasteful to black fly (Aphis). The botanists were responsible for supplying solutions with a range of concentrations of various elements for water culture solutions. These included several elements, of which boron was one, not previously recognized as plant nutrients. Using the solutions he found that all his plants died except those given boron.

Warington’s work required meticulous care as she had to maintain a boron free solution as her control throughout the life of the beans. Her test solution concentrations were as low as 5 ppm (parts per million). Everyone coming into the glasshouse had first to wash their hands even if they weren’t going to handle the plants. By 1923 she had published the proof that boron was essential to the healthy growth of broad beans. Dr Hugh Nicol commented “It is not given to everyone to found a minor industry with her first piece of research, yet this, in effect, happened in her case…the agricultural consumption of boron compounds attained considerable dimension”. Warington went on to produce papers on other micronutrients including molybdenum and manganese.

Winifred Elsie Brenchley OBE, DSc (Lond), FLS, FRES (1883 – 1953), an agricultural botanist, was the first woman in the UK to break into the male dominated sphere of agricultural science. She has been described as “perhaps Britain’s leading authority on weeds in the early twentieth century”.

Winifred Brenchley was born in London on 10 August 1883 to Elizabeth Beckett and William Brenchley, a schoolmaster who was once Mayor of Camberwell. Measles in childhood left her partially deaf. She was educated at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, where one of her teachers was the well known botanist Dr Lilian Clarke.

She attended Swanley Horticultural College for two years, completing her course in 1903. At the school, the new science-based study provided an alternative to the earlier emphasis on practical apprenticeship training, thus opening up male dominated horticultural trades to women. By 1903 the college was only taking women students, with the aim of providing suitable occupations for unmarried women. (There was also a growing demand for horticulturalists and agriculturalists in the British colonies and it was felt that women were suited to this role.) Brenchley won the Royal Horticultural Society Silver Gilt medal but gave up gardening to study botany. She received her BSc from University College London in 1905, where she studied under Francis Wall Oliver. She was awarded a Gilchrist Scholarship for postgraduate study for 1906-7 and was awarded a DSc in 1911. She became a Fellow of University College in 1914.

The Gilchrist Scholarship took her to Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden. She was the first woman to work there in the 60 years of the laboratories’ existence, and it was admitted that she was appointed ‘because the funds available would not have attracted a suitable man’ The quality of her work was soon apparent and after a year she became a permanent employee as head of the Botany Department, a post she held until her retirement at 65.

Early on at Rothamsted she demonstrated her technical skills, improving the technique for growing plants in water culture and coming close to discovering the essential role of copper and zinc in plant nutrition, as detailed in her book Inorganic Plant Poisons and Stimulants (1914, revised 1927). Katherine Warington’s discovery of boron’s role as a micronutrient in 1923 and the subsequent investigations into the effects of boron is perhaps the best known work from her laboratory. Her other chief interest was in the ecology of weeds and in Weeds of Farmland (1920) she produced the first comprehensive scientific study of weeds in the UK. Her work on the permanent Park Grass plots at Rothamsted resulted in another book Manuring of Grassland for Hay (1924) describing how lime and fertilizers affect the botanical composition of grasslands.

Brenchley was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1910. In 1920 she became a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. She was closely associated with A D Imms with whom she collected in the field. Her main entomological interest was in the Lepidoptera. She was awarded the OBE in 1948, the year she retired.
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