Arber, Agnes Robertson

views updated

Arber, Agnes Robertson

(b. London, England, 23 February 1879; d. Cambridge, England, 22 March 1960)


Agnes Robertson’s interest in botany developed strongly at school in northern London and later at University College, London, and the Botany School, Cambridge. She was particularly influenced by her friend and teacher, Ethel Sargant, who excited her interest in comparative plant anatomy. In 1909 she married E. A.N. Arber, demonstrator in paleobotany at Cambridge University.

At the Suggestion of A. C. Seward, Mrs. Arber engaged in the study of early printed herbals, and her book on them (1912) became a standard work. It was revised and largely rewritten for the 1938 edition.

She published many papers on comparative anatomy, especially of the monocotyledons, and coordinated her results in three books, hte first of which was Water Plants: A Study of Aquatic Angiosperms. The second, Monocotyledons: A Morphological Study, was noted for its illumination of the so-called phyllode theory of the origin of the monocotyledonous leaf. The third, The Gramineae, was like Water Plants in that it embraced a very wide botanical approach.

In the later years of her life Mrs. Arber published three books that reflect the way she had then turned to consideration of scientific thought in relation to philosophy and metaphysics.

Agnes Arber was in the vanguard of the movement of women into scientific research: she was the first woman botanist to be made a follow of the Royal Society and she received the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society in 1948. Throughout her life she had few formal contacts with college or university, choosing to work largely by herself. She was nonetheless kindly, helpful, and gracious, and certainly deserved A. G. Tansley’s tribute (1952): “Dr. Agnes Arber is the most distinguished as well as the most erudite of British plant morphologists.”


I. Original Works. Between 1902 and 1957 Agnes Arber published in scientific periodicals some eighty-four original papers, the bulk of them in the field of comparative plant anatomy. They are listed in full in H. Hamshaw Thomas’ obituary notice (see below). In addition she published Herbals: There Origin and Evolution (Cambridge, 1912, 2nd rev. ed. 1938); Water Plants: A Study of Aquatic Angiosperms (Cambridge, 1920); Monocotyledons: A Morphological Study (Cambridge, 1925) ; The Gramineae: A Study of Cereal, Bamboo and Grass (Cambridge, 1934); The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (Cambridge, 1950); The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint (Cambridge, 1954); and The Manifold and the One (London, 1957).

II. Secondary Literature. The most comprehensive biography is that by H. Hamshaw Thomas, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 6 (1960), 1–11. Shorter obituaries appeared in Taxon, 9 (1960), 261–263; Proceedings of The Linnean Society of London, 172 (1961), 128; and Phytomorphology, 11 (1961), 197–198.

Harry Godwin