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Behind the picture: Marjory Stephenson and bacterial biochemistry

January 2015 marks 130 years since the birth of Marjory Stephenson, a researcher who pioneered the study of biochemistry in bacteria and was one of the first two women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945. Dr Jane Cope, former Director of the National Cancer Research Institute, shares some of her research into this relatively unknown scientist’s life.

Sketch of Marjory Stephenson

Marjory Stephenson (Image copyright: Principal and Fellows of Newnham College Cambridge)

Newnham College Cambridge is famous for its long corridor with ample space for portraits of distinguished alumnae. As an undergraduate in the 1970s I regularly passed this picture of a kindly looking woman whose eyes seemed to follow me. I thought of her as a benign presence watching over my busy student life. I looked at the name on the portrait ― Marjory Stephenson ― but it meant nothing to me.

After three years I was offered a PhD studentship in the Microbiology Unit of the Biochemistry Department in Cambridge, which was headed by Professor Ernest Gale. On arrival at his office I was amazed to see a copy of the same portrait on the wall.

I learned that she had founded the unit and had been Gale’s teacher and mentor. Her name cropped up again when I joined the Society for General Microbiology, which has a biennial memorial lecture in Marjory’s name. Later, I started to think about finding out more about her.

But it wasn’t until November 2013 when I retired from full-time work that I finally had time to immerse myself in various archives, both dusty and electronic. Would Marjory’s life be interesting enough to justify the effort? Well I think so, but then she has become something of a passion for me.

Marjory spent her early childhood on a farm in Cambridgeshire and was in part inspired to study science by her father’s interest in evolution and genetics as applied to plant breeding for agriculture. But it was the influence of her mother and the family governess that led to her being sent away for secondary education to Berkhamsted School, from where she went on to Newnham College Cambridge in 1903.

She earned a living by teaching for a few years between 1903 and 1906 before the opportunity to do some research came up, and then her career was interrupted by the First World War in which she served for the British Red Cross Society in Normandy and Salonika.

So she was in her early 30s by the time she went back to Cambridge in 1919 and established herself under Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins in the Biochemistry Department, where she stayed until she died in December 1948.

Marjory was respected as a rigorous experimentalist and was one of the first people in the UK to study biochemistry in bacteria. In fact, she was the only researcher at the time with an interest in the fundamentals of energy metabolism rather than medical application. The latter was sometimes a source of contention with the MRC, which paid her salary from 1922 until she died.

In the 1930s she studied how bacteria adapt to growing on different food materials, and while her work came before the structure and function of DNA were known, it nevertheless helped to pave the way for modern molecular biology and our understanding of how genes are switched on and off. Marjory was also revered as a teacher in the lab: her style was to encourage independence in her students, and not to spoon-feed, though she could be hot-tempered.

Sadly there are few images of Marjory in her prime, but through my research into her life I am trying to paint a picture with words. My initial essay about her life is a start, but there is much more to tell, and probably much more for me to find out.

Jane Cope

Find out more about the life and work of Marjory Stephenson in Jane’s essay for the University of Cambridge Department of Biochemistry website.

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