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Women mycologists

This essay is written with some trepidation, by a fungal biologist with no formal credentials in the study of feminism. What I can offer to support this area of scholarship is a good deal of interest in the people who have made significant contributions to the study of fungi. Some individuals loom larger in mycological history than they deserve, but, to be fair, this mild indictment applies both to those with, and those without, a Y chromosome.

The science of mycology blossomed in Darwin’s time, when German botanist Anton de Bary (1831-1888) began to decode the life cycles of fungi and penned the first textbook on fungi. British clergyman and botanist Miles Berkeley founded the parallel field of plant pathology, which concerns plant diseases, at around the same time. Few women have left any trace of their contributions to the study of fungi before the 1900s, which explains, in part, why the mycological investigations of children’s author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) have attracted so much attention. Beatrix developed a keen interest in natural history during childhood holidays in Scotland and the Lake District and became fascinated with lichens. The true nature of lichens as symbiotic sandwiches of fungi with green algal and blue-green bacterial fillings was recognized by a Swiss scientist in the 1860s, but there were holdouts who rejected the theory for decades.

An unfortunate misreading of Potter’s encrypted journal led biographers to conclude that the young woman had become a vocal supporter of the symbiotic theory in the 1890s and this has encouraged some ridiculous claims about her importance as a scientist. Comments in Potter’s journal about being rebuffed by botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with whom she discussed her investigations added to the myth. There is obvious drama in the story of a young woman working independently, making a significant breakthrough, and being quashed by the male establishment. Coupled with the fact that she became a best-selling author, one has the makings of a fairy tale. And a fairy tale this is. A careful reading of Potter’s journal shows that rather than supporting the cohabitive character of lichens, she thought that fungi could fashion their own green components. Potter got it wrong.

Her work on fungi was not without other merits. Potter’s keen observational skills and talent as an illustrator allowed her to compose glorious paintings of mushrooms and some of these were adopted for an authoritative guidebook on fungi. The problem with the myth about Potter’s groundbreaking experiments is that it detracts from the work of other women who made lasting contributions to our understanding of the fungi.

Elsie Wakefield. Source: C. G. Lloyd, Mycological Notes 72 (1924). Used with permission.

One of her contemporaries who deserves a higher profile is Elsie Maud Wakefield (1886-1972), an extraordinary scientist who served as Head of Mycology at Kew for 40 years. Wakefield studied the fundamentals of fungal sexuality by pairing colonies that developed from mushroom spores. Mushrooms have a particularly catholic approach to sex, with some species embracing tens of thousands of mating types, and fertilization occurring between almost every gender combination.

It is worth noting that Worthington G. Smith, a prominent Victorian mycologist, developed a view of fungal reproduction that was so utterly bereft of truth that it is difficult to overstate the failings of his seemingly hallucinogenic observations. He also poisoned his family by misidentifying a mushroom (nobody died) and, hubris intact, went on to publish a book on mushroom identification.

Johanna Westerdijk (1883-1961) was another scientist with a huge influence on the study of fungi. She was the head of a school of plant pathologists in the Netherlands, most of whom were women. Marie Schwarz was a 24-year-old student in the Westerdijk lab when she isolated a fungus from diseased elm trees after the First World War. The fact that this fungus was the cause of Dutch elm disease was established by Christine Buisman, another of Westerdijk’s protégés.

Opportunities for women in mycology are certainly more widespread today and many leaders in fungal biology are women. Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible to suggest that we live in the best possible of all professional worlds and that women scientists face no career hurdles specific to their gender.

Featured image credit: Fly Agaric, by Bianca Mentil CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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