- 23 February 2015
On Sunday 22nd February a plaque celebrating Marjory Stephenson, legendary biochemist and microbiologist, was unveiled at Mitchams Agricultural Machinery Ltd, Cambridge.
Stephenson (1885–1948) lived at Pit’s Farm on the site as a child and went on to become a scientific pioneer and one of the first female Fellows of The Royal Society. The Society of Biology is installing the plaque as part of a new series of ten blue plaques around the UK celebrating the eminent but sometimes unsung heroes of biology.
At the unveiling ceremony Sir John Skehel, Vice President of The Royal Society, gave a speech:
“Marjory Stephenson was primarily an experimentalist, always eager to exploit a range of techniques to understand the biological properties of bacteria. Through this approach she was an inspiration to subsequent leaders in microbiology.
“At a time when the contributions of women to science were rarely recognised she was one of the first women to receive a Doctor of Science degree from Cambridge University, she was the first to receive the readership in chemical microbiology, and she was one of the first two women to be elected, in 1945, to the Fellowship of The Royal Society, the national academy of science.”
Sir James Paice, MP for South East Cambridgeshire, also spoke at the event in celebration of this local hero.
Stephenson was born in Burwell in 1885, the youngest child of a scientifically-minded fruit farmer. She enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1903, at a time when the female students still wore long skirts, undertook practical classes separately from male students and were chaperoned to lectures outside the college.
Her early career in teaching was interrupted by the First World War when Stephenson joined the Red Cross, where she ran kitchens in France. In 1918 she was awarded an MBE and an Associate Royal Red Cross.
In 1928, Stephenson became the first person to isolate an enzyme from a bacteria cell (E. coli). In 1930 she wrote Bacterial Metabolism which became a standard textbook for generations of microbiologists. In 1945 she was one of two women to become the first to be elected as a Fellow to the Royal Society (the other was Kathleen Lonsdale). She was also a founder member of the Society for General Microbiology and became its President.
The new series of celebratory plaques include those to: in Suffolk, Dorothy Hodgkin, who discovered the structure of Penicillin; Steptoe, Edwards and Purdy, IVF pioneers, in Oldham; and Dolly the Sheep, and the team who created her, in Edinburgh.
The ten blue plaques are part of the national Biology: Changing the World project; which also includes a new app, website, public engagement programme and teaching resources. The free app, available in the apple and android app stores, uses your location to introduce you to the great biologists who lived and worked nearby and biological discoveries which were made in the area.
Dr Mark Downs FSB, chief executive of the Society of Biology said:
“We have a great heritage of scientific discovery and an exciting future, but the biologists who have contributed to our understanding of the world are not always given the appreciation they deserve. We are delighted to be giving these biologists the recognition awarded to other great historical figures through Biology: Changing the World. The project is also a celebration of biology and biologists today. The life sciences will be essential for solving the problems of the 21st Century such as food security and antibiotic resistance. By highlighting our great biology heritage we hope to inspire the next generation.”
The Biology: Changing the World project of the Society of Biology was developed in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Professor Jackie Hunter, chief executive of the BBSRC, said:
“I’m delighted that BBSRC has been involved with this scheme to raise the profile of unsung heroes of bioscience who have changed the world with their contributions. We hope that these plaques will spark curiosity and help inspire new generations to get involved in the biosciences, which will continue to change the world and help us meet the challenges of the future.”