Cullis, Winifred Clara (1875–1956)

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Cullis, Winifred Clara (1875–1956)

British physiologist who was the first woman in the United Kingdom to serve as a professor of physiology. Born in 1875 in Gloucester, England; died in 1956; educated at King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, and Mason College; attended Newnham College, Cambridge University; doctorate, University of London, 1908; never married.

Demonstrator in physiology, Royal Free Hospital Medical School (1901); lecturer and head of physiology department (1908–41); awarded D.Sc. (1908); taught at the University of Toronto (1908–12); reader at University of London (1912), became professor of physiology (1919), and first holder of Jex-Blake chair of physiology (1926–41); carried out important research in the early part of her career; an ardent feminist, played a leadership role in several organizations including British Federation of University Women (president, 1925–29) and the International Federation of University Women (president, 1929–32); retired from teaching (1941) but remained active in the field of physiology; headed women's section, British Information Services, New York (1941–43); lectured in Middle East (1944–45); was one of the first women to be elected membership in the Physiology Society; awarded CBE (1929).

Winifred Clara Cullis grew up in a time of changing attitudes about the desirability of women being admitted to institutions of higher learning and choosing careers as professors in these institutions. Born in Gloucester in 1875, Cullis was educated in Birmingham and at Mason College, where she took classes in physics, biology and physiology. An outstanding student, she was admitted to Cambridge University on a Sidgwich Scholarship. Cullis was awarded a doctorate by the University of London in 1908, by which time she was already a productive researcher. Starting that year, she published a number of collaborative papers in the Journal of Physiology; these included important contributions to knowledge in the field, such as a new method of determining oxygen and carbon dioxide in small volumes of fluid in order to study the gas metabolism of gut. Other significant work included studies of the mammalian heart, which were based on meticulously detailed investigations of its nerves.

Winifred Cullis began her teaching career in 1901 as a demonstrator in physiology and became known as an effective and popular teacher. From 1908 until 1912, she taught at the University of Toronto, returning to England in 1912 to accept a full-time lectureship at the University of London, a post that became a professorship in 1919. As the first woman to receive appointments as either a demonstrator, lecturer or professor of physiology in the United Kingdom, she played an important role in the acceptance of women in the field. Her great talent and nonconfrontational personality did much to win over those males in her field who resisted the idea of female equality. On July 3, 1915, she became one of the first six women to be elected to membership in the Physiological Society of Great Britain. An ardent feminist, Cullis served as president of the British Federation of University Women from 1925 through 1929. She also had the distinction of being president of the International Federation of University Women from 1929 through 1932. Convinced that intellectual exchange served the cause of international understanding, Cullis became vice-president in 1937 of the British-American Associates, a trans-Atlantic academic exchange organization.

Cullis did not slow down her activities upon her retirement from teaching in 1941. As she had done in World War I, she traveled extensively to lecture to troops on health and hygiene. She remained associated with research in physiology, particularly work being done at London's Royal Free Hospital. Cullis received many honors for her achievements, including appointment in 1919 to the Order of the British Empire. In 1929, she was made Commander of the British Empire. A superb scholar and meticulous researcher, Winifred Cullis did not believe that knowledge should be the property of only a small elite. To prove her point, she wrote two books meant for a mass audience, The Body and its Health (1935) and Your Body and the Way it Works (1949); these were intended to present accurate information about human physiology so that average men and women could practice preventative medicine by living healthier lives. Winifred Clara Cullis died in 1956.


Cullis, Winifred, and Muriel Bond. The Body and its Health. London: Allen and Unwin, 1935.

——. Your Body and the Way it Works, London: George Unwin and Allen, 1949.

O'Connor, W.J. British Physiologists 1885–1914: A Biographical Dictionary. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia