Women and Wetland Science

New research exploring a national archive of freshwater and wetland science is uncovering the significant role  of women biologists and ecologists in the development of global freshwater biological sciences in the 20th Century. The project, Women Freshwater Biologists (1929 – 1990), is part of a wider initiative to archive the collections of samples, correspondence and research of scientists who have worked with the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) based on Lake Windermere in the UK. 

A fascinating aspect of this archive is its inclusion of the personal donated collections of several distinguished women scientists. These include Winifred Pennington (1915 – 2007; married name: Tutin), whose study of pollen and diatoms in lake sediments developed the history of climate and vegetation in British lakes. Hilda Canter-Lund (1922 – 2007) researched fungi that parasitise freshwater algae. Both Lund and Pennington worked on Esthwaite Water, now a Ramsar site, setting baseline data for the lake. Canter-Lund’s photomicrographs of freshwater organisms are particularly interesting for the way in which they combined aesthetic and technical qualities. Winifred Frost (1902 – 1979) focused her research on trout, char and eels in the UK and Africa. 

Through the materials in the archive, the project is exploring the scientific lives of these women, piecing together their contributions to  the development of the FBA in the 1930s, and examining how they developed distinctive methodologies, practices and tools that expressed particular relations with the organisms and the bodies of water they studied. The project is interested in whether, and how, these women’s contributions to science reflected the changing scientific and political contexts of the 20th Century. How did a ‘curiosity-driven’ culture of research, characteristic of the early days of the FBA, for example, open up the way for women and men to develop new fields within freshwater biology? Some of the FBA scientists – for example, Rosemary Lowe-McConnell (1921 – 2014) working in the East African Fisheries Research Organisation, and Ethelwynn Trewavas (1900 – 1992, pictured) researching African Rift Lake cichlids – worked within an imperial context. How did their experiences in the colonies shape British freshwater science?

The project, in its early stages, brings together gender studies, environmental history, and social studies of science, to investigate the characteristics, qualities and context of research by women freshwater biologists. 

By Mark Toogood (University of Central Lancashire, UK), Claire Waterton (Lancaster University, UK), Wallace Heim, (independent researcher, UK) in association with the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) based at Lake Windermere, UK.