Women in Science: Pioneering lecturers
Some of the first members of staff teaching sciences at University College Leicester were women. Between 1921 and 1957 the greatest number of women teaching science taught Botany and Zoology.
Charlotte Elizabeth Cowper Measham (1863-1937)
Charlotte Elizabeth Cowper Measham was the first female lecturer at the university. Prior to this she had taught in several schools including Wyggeston Girls’ School (from 1911 – 1926). She taught Botany from 1921 and was employed for the first year on a temporary contract. She also helped with the laying out of the first University botanical garden. From 1922, Dr Ethel N Miles Thomas was appointed to a permanent lecturer post. Charlotte Measham may have continued working as an assistant lecturer for another year.
Professor Winifred Tutin (née Pennington) (1915-2007)
Winifred Pennington taught Botany at the University of Leicester; as a demonstrator and special lecturer from 1947-67, as an Honorary Reader from 1971–1979 and as an Honorary Professor in 1980. She had four children during the late 1940s and early 1950s, while lecturing at the University College. She lectured on a variety of topics including mycology, carried out an active research programme and worked with botanical volunteers, including in science-based surveys and expeditions.
Pennington did a substantial amount of work at the Freshwater Biological Association in the Lake District, where she researched ancient lake and river sediments to reconstruct past environmental conditions (this discipline is called palaeolimnology). She was a pioneer in the use of pollen in lake sediments and found the first evidence of a particular type of climate pattern. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979 in recognition of her contributions. Her comprehensive history of vegetation patterns across Northern Europe over the last 30,000 years underpins most modern work on climate change.
Pennington was a prolific author, publishing articles under her maiden name. In a paper published in 1941 she explored possible wartime-uses of algae. After leaving Leicester, her final years were spent in the village of Kingsclere and she was granted some bench space by at the nearby University of Reading. She remained actively involved in research, co-authoring important papers in 2003.
She was conscious of being a woman in science, but through her personality and excellence she became universally regarded as an equal and a leader in her field. She modestly described herself as studying lake history or ecological history, but despite claiming not to be a palaeolimnologist Winifred Pennington is considered to be one of the great pioneers of palaeolimnology in Britain.
Ann Conolly (1917-2010)
From 1936–1940, Ann Connolly read Natural Sciences at Newnham College Cambridge, at a time when degrees were not awarded to women. Between 1940 and 1943, she was registered for a PhD in quaternary botany (the study of plant fossils in last 2.6 million years). The research was virtually complete, but the thesis was never submitted due to “war-time interruptions”, which included fire watching on the roof of the university buildings.
Conolly was appointed lecturer at University College Leicester in 1947, where she taught plant classification, anatomy and distribution. She remained at the University until her retirement in 1982. Her teaching was an inspiration to future botanists.
She performed pioneering work on the history and spread of Japanese Knotweed in the UK and had one type named after her, in her honour in 2001 for her 84th birthday.
She was interested in many topics and had dozens of scientific publications to her name. The flora of the Lleyn Peninsula in Caernarfonshire was her life’s work, although remains unpublished.
Conolly remained academically and physically active into her 80s, which included going on field trips. On retirement from the Botany Department at Leicester in 1982, she was given a portable electric typewriter on which she continued her work, using one of the department’s room. In 1998, Cambridge awarded her the degree which was denied her in 1940.
Outside of her academic work, Conolly was a person of strong convictions. Together with her colleague Elisabeth Wangermann, she was among a group of lecturers from Leicester and 26 other institutions to write to the Times newspaper calling on the Brtish government to withdraw its support for United States policy in Vietnam. She has been described by a colleague as having a great sense of humour, a healthy disrespect for authority, and a comprehensive botanical knowledge as well as being a great conversationalist.
Researched and written by Jacqui Sealy