Arber, Agnes

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Agnes Arber

English botanist and plant morphologist Agnes Arber (1879-1960) was one of the eminent scientists of her time. She was the first female botanist (and only the third woman overall) to be elected to the Royal Society of London and the first woman to win the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society. The first of her seven books, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution: A Chapter in the History of Botany: 1470 to 1670 was published in 1912 and quickly became a classic. Arber's scientific work was further distinguished by its inclusion of her artistic, historical, and philosophical interests and sensibilities.

Early Life and Education

Arber was born in London, England, on February 23, 1879, the eldest of Henry Robert Robertson and Agnes Lucy Turner's eventual three children. Her father was an artist who began giving her drawing lessons when she was three years old, and her mother instilled in her an early interest in plants. Combined, those childhood influences would go on to play a crucial role in her education and professional life.

Arber's parents also had the intelligence and foresight to see that she was better educated than was the general fashion of the era for girls. Thus, she was sent to the North London Collegiate School for Girls, where education was taken seriously and the sciences were particularly emphasized. It was there that Arber met the botanist Ethel Sargant, who was to become a mentor and lifelong friend, and that she was exposed to the work of renowned German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who would also have a lasting impact on her.

In 1897, Arber began studying at University College in London. She received a bachelor of science degree, with First Class Honors, in 1899 before winning a scholarship to Cambridge University's Newnham College. She performed extremely well at Cambridge, again achieving First Class Honors, but the university did not grant degrees to women at the time, so the budding scientist was forced to obtain her doctorate elsewhere. First, beginning in 1902, she spent a year as Sargant's research assistant at the older botanist's private laboratory in her home. Arber then returned to University College as a Quain Student in biology. She was awarded a D.Sc. in 1905 and taught biology and botany at the university until 1909. In 1908, Arber had been made a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and in 1909, she married paleobotanist Edward Alexander Newell (“Newell”) Arber. Her new husband was employed by Trinity College, Cambridge, so the young couple settled in a rented house there that Arber would inhabit for the next 51 years.

Beginnings and Endings

In Cambridge, Arber returned to Newnham College (one of only two women's colleges at the university then) to conduct her research at its Balfour Laboratory. Her primary specialty was the monocotyledon, or monocot, division of flowering plants. Monocots are the smaller of the two main flowering plant groups, the larger being dicotyledons (dicots), and are generally characterized as having a single seed leaf, narrow leaves with parallel veins, flower parts arranged in sets of threes, and hollow or soft stems. Their ranks include grasses, orchids, lilies, and palms.

As the newlyweds embarked upon their lives together, the world seemed to hold much promise. Arber's first book, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution: A Chapter in the History of Botany: 1470 to 1670, was published in 1912 (a second edition appeared in 1938). Its attention to science and history, as well as the myriad beautifully detailed illustrations rendered by the author herself, quickly elevated the book to a classic of botanical literature. That success was followed by the unrelated, although surely just as welcome, happiness of the birth of the Arbers' only child, Muriel, on July 21, 1913. Sargant was named the godmother. But the joy was short-lived, as Arber's husband passed away on June 14, 1918, not yet nine years past their union as husband and wife.

The death of Arber's husband, unsurprisingly, left a great void and presented many challenges to the young widow. It is, perhaps, telling that she never remarried. Instead, she devoted her life to her work and her daughter, with whom Arber lived until her death in 1960. It may not have been an entirely blissful existence for the relatively nascent scientist, but it did prove to be a fruitful one.

Her Own Space

Arber continued her research at the Balfour Lab until the college closed the facility in 1927. During that time, she also wrote two more books, Water Plants: A Study of Aquatic Angiosperms (1920) and Monocotyledons: A Morphological Study (1925). The former acknowledged her late husband as the instigator of the project in the preface and the latter was inherited from Sargant when the more senior botanist's health became too poor to write it. Both were rife with Arber's trademark illustrations and, although some of her ideas, such as the concept of parallel evolution, were controversial, the books were considered valuable contributions to the field of botany.

The closing of the Balfour Lab necessitated that Arber seek out new research facilities. She first asked permission to use the university's lab at its Botany School, but was refused, so cast about for another suitable location. Finally, as her mentor had done before her, Arber set up a laboratory in her home. And while the solution could hardly have been ideal, she rose to the challenge admirably. Indeed, Arber was well suited to the autonomy and solitude offered by such a working arrangement. Richard L. Hauke quoted her words from an address to Girton College students in 1926 in Vignettes from the History of Plant Morphology as, “The concentration of mind necessary for independent thought is far more easily achieved in a place where one can get a generous measure of solitude than in a populous laboratory where people are incessantly running in and out, and in Ethel Sargant's words ‘Independence is the essence of research.’ ”

Head Full of Ideas

Whether Arber found her home laboratory facilities optimum or not, the situation did not affect her customary productivity. In 1934, her last major morphological (or that concerning the anatomy of plants) work, The Gramineae: A Study of Cereal, Bamboo, and Grass, was published. Later books included The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950), The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint (1954), and The Manifold and the One (1957). Nor were her writing efforts limited to books. Arber also contributed historical pieces to such publications as Isis and Chronica Botanica, and wrote about such famous scientists as Nehemiah Grew, Marcello Malpighi, John Ray, and Sir Joseph Banks. In 1945, she drew upon her lifelong fascination with Goethe to publish a translation and commentary on his Attempt to Interpret the Metamorphosis of Plants. In all, Arber had written over 80 scientific articles, a great many historical and philosophical articles, plenty of book reviews, and, of course, her own seven books between 1903 and 1960. And that was in addition to conducting her scientific research and bringing up a child alone.

One of the most interesting things about Arber's writings was how they tracked her change of focus from strict morphology to the history and philosophy of scientific thought. In the The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form, for example, part of her preface reads, as quoted by Hauke, “I began by thinking of (the morphology of flowering plants) quite simply as a branch of natural science, but I have come finally to feel that it reaches its fullest reality in the region of natural philosophy, where it converges upon metaphysics.” The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint explored the process of biological inquiry, with half the book dedicated to interpreting scientific research within the dual contexts of history and philosophy. The Manifold and the One went even further, as it delved into the paradox of the relationship of parts to a whole and brought mysticism into play. In fact, Arber's last book was such a departure from the mainstream literature of her field that it was not reviewed in the scientific press and was generally catalogued in libraries under “metaphysics,” as opposed to the “botany” or “biology” classifications of her earlier work. Still, that later work retained relevance into the 21st century, as had much of her previous effort. Maura C. Flannery noted in a 2002 article for the SHiPS Newsletter, “As a new century and a new millennium get underway, it is easy to lose sight of the notable thinkers of the past … Agnes Arber is one such individual who deserves attention in the century ahead, particularly because she presented a view of biological inquiry that is still fresh and significant today.”

A Woman of Firsts

Although Arber was considered one of the most important botanists of her time, she chose to live very simply. Her income was not large, and she never moved from the rented house she had come to as a young bride in 1909. Her preference for quiet and solitude, utter devotion to her work, and, undoubtedly, the demands on a single mother, did not lend themselves to a busy social schedule. But she found time to mentor various botany students, much as Sargant had helped her along so many years before, and she was known as a kind and gracious person. Arber's work, however, was what truly defined her, and the scientific community did not let it pass unremarked upon. In 1946, she became the first female botanist (and only the third woman overall) to be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Two years later, she became the first woman ever to be honored with the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society. In short, Arber's insight and contributions were recognized and rewarded by her peers.

Arber and her daughter, who grew up to be a noted geologist, lived together at 52 Huntingdon Road in Cambridge until Arber's death on March 22, 1960. She was buried with her late husband at St. Andrew's Parish in Girton. It is a testament to her impact and lasting legacy that her work and ideas were still being examined decades later. Kathryn Packer, for instance, wrote A Laboratory of One's Own: The Life and Works of Agnes Arber, F.R.S. (1879–1960) (1997), and the 1999 International Botanical Congress looked at her morphological work in relation to newer developments in vascular plant development. Simply put, Arber was gone, but her remarkable contributions lived on.


Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.


“Agnes Arber: Morphology to Metaphysics and Mysticism,” Vignettes from the History of Plant Morphology, 1996, (November 29, 2007).

“Arber, Agnes Robertson (England 1879-1960),” Chrono-Biographical Sketch, (November 29, 2007).

“Monocotyledon,” Hutchinson Encyclopedia, (January 2, 2008).

Packer, Kathryn, “A Laboratory of One's Own: The Life and Works of Agnes Arber, F.R.S. (1879-1960),” Royal Society Publishing, (November 29, 2007).

“Plant Anatomy & Glossary,” Texas A&M University, (January 2, 2008).

“The Historical and Scientific Significance of Agnes Arber,”∼schmid/arber/ArberSummary.html (November 29, 2007).

“The Many Sides of Agnes Arber,” SHiPS Newsletter, October 20, 2002, (November 29, 2007).