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Edith Rebecca (Becky) Saunders (1865-1945): Botanist

Saunders studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and gained first class honours in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1888. After graduating she pursued independent research and worked as a botanical demonstrator at the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women, situated in the College grounds, until 1899 when she became director of the laboratory. In 1895 Saunders began working on a series of experiments with Bateson to provide evidence of the inheritance of non-blended traits in a one acre allotment rented by Bateson from Cambridge University Botanic Garden. She focused on three separate cases of plant varieties that exhibited either smooth or hairy leaves: Matthiola incana, Lychnis diurna, and Biscutella laevigata, cross-breeding smooth- with hairy-leaved varieties and analysing the progeny to see if the traits remained distinct or blended together. Her first publication on Biscutella appeared in 1897; her observation that the traits generally remained distinct confirmed Bateson’s hypothesis of discontinuous inheritance. Bateson at this time was carrying out his own experiments, mainly on animals but also in sweet peas and later butterflies. From 1897 Saunders’s and Bateson’s breeding experiments were supported by small grants from the Evolution Committee of the Royal Society which had been formed in 1894. Their first report to the Committee was published in 1902. Through her position at the Balfour Laboratory Saunders was able to interest a number of women studying biology in Mendelism, and with her and Bateson’s guidance they initiated a variety of Mendelian breeding experiments. Women students benefited from this research opportunity as they did not have access to university appointments or funding. After Bateson left Cambridge in 1910 Saunders returned to her previous focus on plant morphology.


 See also:

Marsha Richmond, ‘The “Domestication” of Heredity: the familial organization of geneticists at Cambridge University, 1895-1910’, Journal of the History of Biology, 39, 3 (2006): 565-605

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