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Working Environments: the Cambridge Biochemical Laboratory

My database revealed that women biochemists tended to cluster in particular institutions. In part, this trend suggests that institutions which had female spaces fostered women’s work in Biochemistry. One of the most prolific authors, Gladys Annie Hartwell, spent her career at the Household and Social Science Department, King’s College for Women. At Cambridge, the Balfour Laboratory for women offered a valuable working environment which fostered the careers of a number of women (Richmond, 1997).

The most common location amongst the cohort of authors identified in the survey was the Lister Institute in London. The appointment of Charles Martin as Director of the Institute in 1903 appears to have been a significant factor in the creation of a woman-friendly workspace: in 1905, Martin appointed Harriette Chick to a Jenner Memorial Research Studentship against the advice of staff members. Fifty-six of the women identified in my survey spent at least part of their career working at the Lister Institute, while an appendix in the history of the Lister Institute produced by Chick, Margaret Hume and Marjorie Macfarlane contains a list of all scientific staff who worked at the Institute between 1898 and 1966. Cambridge and University College London also appear to have offered a supportive research environment, hosting 27 and 25 authors respectively.

Marelene and Geoff Rayner-Canham (2008) have suggested that a key factor which enabled women to flourish in a particular environment was the presence of a supportive male mentor. They explored this hypothesis by studying the cluster of women biochemists working at Cambridge under Frederick Gowland Hopkins, known affectionately as ‘Hoppy’ by his colleagues.

We can gain some insight into the working environment fostered by Hopkins at Cambridge through Brighter Biochemistry an illustrated journal first produced by the Cambridge Biochemical Laboratory of Cambridge in December 1923. Brighter Biochemistry adapted traditional literary formats to reflect and subvert the working environment of the laboratory for comedy. Children’s literature offered a rich source of inspiration: thus ‘Down the microscope and what Alice found there’ recounts how the eponymous heroine ventured down the microscope to be given a tour of the housing conditions in the human body. ‘Next time Alice was offered audit ale for lunch she remembered to say “no, thank you”’ (Brighter Biochemistry, 2 (1924), pp. 36-39). In a similar vein, the genre of ‘cautionary tales’ was adapted to lament the fate of ‘Jane Who had no Bacteriological Technique And so Perished Miserably’ and ‘Belinda Who Broke Everything and Left the Laboratory under Lamentable Circumstances’.

Romantic poetry and melodrama also inspired many contributions. Thus Christopher Marlow’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ was reworded as ‘The Passionate Biochemist’. Keats' ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, reworked as ‘La Belle Enzyme Sans Merci’, incorporating references to the laboratory romance between co-workers Antoinette (Patey) and Norman Pirie, who married in 1930:

O what can ail thee, biochemist.

So haggard and so woe-begone?

The Pirie e’en has gone to bed

And the day is done.’

(Brighter Biochemistry, 8 (1930-31), pp. 29-30)

The 1927 to 1928 volume included ‘Bio Femina’, a pastiche of a popular women’s magazine. A section of household hints and cooking recipes advised readers that rubber stoppers could be sterilised if placed in a pan with a little water and placed over a gas burner for two or three hours: ‘throw the resulting mess out of the window’. ‘Advice to Young (Foster) Mothers and Baby Farmers’, encouraged those concerned to place their fingers in the animal cages as ‘the mothers mayprefer this as their source of protein, and so will refrain from masticating their offspring’. Readers were also offered a pattern for a ‘useful and charming garment’ which ‘maintains the slim silhouette, and also conforms to fashion’s latest decree in the matter of the serrated base-line’. Fashioned from a Tate sugar sack and trimmed with rubber tubing, the garment could be customised by artistic splashes of sulphuric acid. ‘… Very smart for best occasions, such as visits to the lab. of High Officials, Trustees, Prime Ministers, etc., when every woman naturally wants to look her best.’ (Brighter Biochemistry, 5 (1927-28), pp. 26-27).

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Brighter Biochemistry Cover


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