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Leicester Special Collections

Dr Ethel Miles Thomas


E.N. Miles Thomas and students in the Botany Laboratory, Fielding Johnson Building

Dr Ethel Nancy Miles Thomas was an important female Botanist working in the early 20th century. She was appointed as a lecturer in Botany and Zoology at University College Leicester. 

Botany was one of the first subjects taught at University College Leicester, but the numbers of students were small in the early years (there were five students in 1922-3). The 1923 Annual Report records that ‘excellent laboratories for botany and zoology have been provided’. The number of students increased, in 1927 there were twenty-two day students, two evening students and 4 botany honours students in the department. From the later 1920s, she began to direct a few research students studying for MSc degrees.

She produced a number of research papers each year, listed in the Report and Accounts, for example on the anatomy of young plants. She received a research grant from the trustees of the Botanical Research Trust in 1926-7, which she used for ‘work on the anatomy of the genus ricinus’, mostly in the Autumn term and vacations. She was also a member of the Research Council of the Association of Scientific Workers. 

Dr Ethel Nancy Miles Thomas sought to widen students experience of the subject, by organising and accompanying them on visits; the Annual Report and Accounts published 1927 states that she ‘has conducted senior students to Oxford, Cambridge, London, Wichen Fen (Suffolk) for attendance at botanical meetings, visits to botanical gardens and to field areas which have been the subject of important botanical researches.’ During the 1930s, she found vacation placements for senior students, for example, at the Freshwater Biological Station in Windermere. In 1933, one of her students, J. Hewitt, won the silver medal under the Sir Jonathan North Endowment Scheme for his joint authorship of a paper as part of his work at the Freshwater Biological Station. Later students undertook placements at UC Wales, Bangor and Rothamsted Experimental Agricultural Station.

By 1937, when she retired, there were seven full time botany students, one part-time student and one research student, as well as six zoology students, with one part-time. When she retired, separate lecturers for the two subjects were appointed. During her 14 years at Leicester she single-handedly established the teaching of biological sciences at the newly founded college.

Researched by Barbara Birch and Christine Reeves