Marjory Stephenson became one of the first female fellows of the Royal Society for her work on bacterial metabolism.
A good education
Marjory Stephenson was born in 1885 near Cambridge, the youngest in her family. Unusually for the time, her parents wanted her to have a good and broad education, so they employed a governess for their youngest daughter. At the age of 11, she went to Berkhamsted School for Girls where, unlike in most girls’ schools of the period, she was able to study science. Marjory excelled in the subject, and followed her older sister to the all-women Newnham College of the University of Cambridge, where she studied natural sciences.
To be a woman studying in Cambridge at that time was not an easy experience, particularly in the sciences. Women were not allowed to be awarded degrees for their work, and were barred from the university’s libraries and laboratories. Fortunately, Newnham had its own science laboratories on-site, which allowed Marjory to study chemistry and zoology. As there were many people in Cambridge who opposed opening higher education to women, students at Newnham were expected to be on their best behaviour at all times, to avoid any possible criticism, and chaperoned when they went to a lecture outside the college.
Despite these restrictive conditions, Marjory completed her studies in 1906. She initially wanted to study medicine, but a lack of funds prevented her, so instead she studied, and then taught, domestic science for five years. She disliked the work and longed to return to science, but opportunities for women at the universities were very rare. Nonetheless, in 1911, she was offered a place to study digestive enzymes under Robert Plimmer at University College London, which she gratefully accepted.
Outbreak of war
Marjory was immediately successful in her research, and after presenting papers to the newly-formed Biochemical Club (now the Biochemical Society), she was awarded a Beit Memorial Fellowship just two years later in 1913. But the outbreak of war cut short her tenure as she immediately volunteered with the Red Cross. After serving in France and in Salonika, Greece, she was mentioned in dispatches and awarded an MBE in recognition of her work. However, after what she experienced in the hospitals, she became a pacifist and a member of an anti-war group.
After the war, Marjory moved to Cambridge to join the research group of Frederick Gowland Hopkins, which was becoming renowned as a centre of study in biochemistry. Her first topic of research was on fat-soluble vitamins, which led her on to bacterial metabolic enzymes and eventually bacterial metabolism in general. She was among the first to discover ‘adaptive enzymes’ which are produced in response to external growth factors, and her work on hydrogenase enzymes is still routinely consulted by chemists today.
As well as these chemical aspects of biochemistry, Marjory was also very interested in the biological side of her subject. The book Bacterial Metabolism in 1930 ran for three editions and became the standard text for generations of biochemists and microbiologists. In the book, she describes her research as underpinned by a desire to ‘catch sight of the machinery’ of life.
From barriers to acceptance
Despite the relatively progressive laboratory in which she worked, Marjory still faced barriers because she was a woman. She was not awarded a university position, despite her research and excellent teaching, instead subsisting on annual grants from the Medical Research Council. She signed all her manuscripts and letters ‘M.S.’ so as not to disclose her sex. Despite being awarded the very senior ScD degree by the university in 1936, she was not allowed to collect it, as it was only titular for women.
Towards the end of her life, these barriers started to be removed. In 1945, the eminent Royal Society voted to accept women as fellows for the first time, and Marjory was one of the first two women admitted (the other was the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale). Shortly after, she was one of the co-founders of the Society for General Microbiology, and became its second president in 1947. In the same year, Cambridge University finally appointed her as reader in chemical microbiology, at the age of 62.
Such was the energy with which she carried out her research that the sudden onset of cancer, which caused her death in 1948, came as a surprise to many. Her life and work is commemorated in the Marjory Stephenson Prize Lecture, awarded biennially by the Society for General Microbiology, which she helped to found.
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Images © Newnham College Cambridge
Published September 2014