Farr, Wanda K. (1895–1983)

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Farr, Wanda K. (1895–1983)

American cytologist who pioneered X-ray diffraction techniques for plant cell research and discovered the mechanism for cellulose manufacture in plant cells. Name variations: Wanda Kirkbride; Mrs. R.C. Faulwetter. Pronunciation: FAR. Born Wanda Marguerite Kirkbride on January 9, 1895, at New Matamoras, Ohio; died in April 1983, possibly in New York City; daughter of Frederick and Clara Nikolaus Kirk-bride; attended Ohio University, B.S., 1915; Columbia University, M.S., 1918; married Clifford Harrison Farr, on May 28, 1917 (died 1928); married Roy Christopher Faulwetter, date unknown (divorced); children: (first marriage) Robert Nicklaus Farr (b. July 3, 1920).

Worked as researcher on plant cells, University of Iowa (1919–24); was research associate, Barnard Skin and Cancer Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri (1925–28); instructed classes at Henry Shaw School of Botany, Washington University, St. Louis (1928); carried on studies on root-hair growth financed by National Academy of Sciences' Bache Fund (1928); was plant physiologist, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Inc. (1928–29); served as associate cotton technologist for U.S. Department of Agriculture (1929–36); served as director, Cellulose Laboratory, Boyce Thompson Institute (1936–40); announced discovery of origins of cellulose manufacture in plant cells (1939); was research microchemist, American Cyanamid Company (1940–43); was research associate, Celanese Corporation of America (1943–54); worked as research consultant (1954–67); was associate professor of botany, University of Maine (1957–68); worked as researcher, Farr Cytochemical Labs (1960s–70s).

Selected writings:

"Cell-Division of the Pollen-Mother-Cell of Coboea scandens alba," in Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club (Vol. 47, 1920, pp. 325–338); "Studies on the Growth of Root Hairs in Solutions: the pH Molar-Rate Relation for Brassica oleracea in Calcium Sulphate," in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 15, 1929, pp. 464–470); "Cotton Fibers. I. Origin and Early Stages of Elongation," in Contributions from Boyce Thompson Institute (CBTI, Vol. 3, 1931, pp. 441–458); (with George L. Clark) "Cotton Fibers. II. Structural Features of the Wall Suggested by X-ray Diffraction Analyses and Observations in Ordinary and Plane-Polarized Light," in CBTI (Vol. 4, 1932, pp. 273–295); "Cotton Fibers. III. Cell Divisions in the Epidermal Layer of the Ovule Subsequent to Fertilization," in CBTI (Vol. 6, 1933, pp. 167–172); "Cotton Fibers. IV. Fiber Abnormalities and Density of the Fiber Mass Within the Boll," in CBTI (Vol. 6, 1934, pp. 471–478); (with Sophia H. Eckerson) "Formation of Cellulose Membranes by Microscopic Particles of Uniform Size in Linear Arrangement," in CBTI (Vol. 6, 1934, pp. 189–203); (with Eckerson) "Separation of Cellulose Particles in Membranes of Cotton Fibers by Treatment with Hydrochloric Acid," in CBTI (Vol. 6, 1934, pp. 309–313); (with Wayne A. Sisson) "X-ray Diffraction Patterns of Cellulose Particles and Interpretations of Cellulose Diffraction Data," in CBTI (Vol. 6, 1934, pp. 315–321); "The Membrane Structure of Valonia," in Proceedings of American Chemical Society, Division of Cellulose Chemistry (93rd meeting, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, April 1937, p. C2); "Certain Colloidal Reactions of Cellulose Membranes,"in Journal of Physical Chemistry (Vol. 41, 1937, pp. 987–995); "Behavior of the Cell Membrane of the Cotton Fiber in Cuprammonium Hydroxide Solution," in CBTI (Vol. 10, 1938, pp. 71–112); "The Microscopic Structure of Plant Cell Membranes in Relation to the Micellar Hypothesis," in Journal of Physical Chemistry (Vol. 42, 1938, pp. 1113–1147); (with Sisson) "Observations on the Membranes of Epidermal Cells of the Avena coleoptile," in CBTI (Vol. 10, 1939, pp. 127–137); "Formation of Microscopic Cellulose Particles in Colorless Plastids of the Cotton Fiber," in CBTI (Vol. 12, 1941, pp. 181–194); "Plant Cell Membranes," in Jerome Alexander, Colloid Chemistry (Vol. 5, NY: Reinhold Publishing, 1944, pp. 610, 667); Cytochemical Studies of Fungi Which Contaminate Aircraft Fuels and Deteriorate Materials (Camden, ME: Farr Cytochemical Laboratories, 1962); Research on the Cytochemistry of Cell Walls of Microorganisms (Camden, ME: Farr Cytochemical Laboratories, 1964).

While her schoolmates were enjoying recess, young Wanda Kirkbride was likely to be found gazing into the sole microscope of her high school laboratory, her pockets bulging with leaves and plants she had gathered to examine. This early inquisitiveness about the structure of native flora was to culminate in a lifelong career in plant physiology, particularly cytology, the study of cells. In her plant-cell investigations Kirkbride was to pioneer X-ray diffraction techniques for analyzing natural fibers, and her discovery of the origin of cellulose answered century-old questions about plant structure.

Acredulous student hardly ever makes a successful scientist.

—Wanda Kirkbride Farr

Wanda Marguerite Kirkbride was born on January 9, 1895, near the river town of New Matamoras, Ohio. Following the death of her father Frederick of tuberculosis when she was four, Wanda moved with her mother Clara Nikolaus Kirkbride into the home of her grandparents, where the household also included her great-grandfather, Dr. Samuel Richardson. A country physician who served for a while as a state senator, Richardson was fluent in French and German and maintained a library of current medical and science journals, both American and foreign. He encouraged Wanda toward a liberal education, introducing her to his technical periodicals, debating international issues with her, criticizing her poetry, and teaching her about natural history, especially indigenous Ohio plant life. The curiosity and independence of mind instilled by her great-grandfather led her to refuse to accept incomplete explanations from her science teacher, a Professor Barr, and to be less gullible than her schoolmates in her pursuit of a full understanding of basic scientific processes.

Wanda also wanted to follow in her great-grandfather's footsteps by becoming a physician. She planned to attend medical school at Ohio State University, but because of her family's worries that the stresses encountered by doctors might cause her to succumb to tuberculosis like her father, she opted for the healthier lifestyle of a research scientist and elected to attend Ohio University at Athens.

Participating in the Science Club, YWCA, and Tennis Association, Wanda majored in botany and chemistry. She completed her requirements for a bachelor's degree in three years, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1915. Botany was still a young science, not fully professionalized until the late 19th century, and offered few career-enhancing positions for qualified women, but Wanda's work as a laboratory assistant in the botany department led to an invitation to spend her fourth collegiate year pursuing advanced studies at Columbia University.

Soon after arriving at Columbia, Wanda met Clifford Harrison Farr, a graduate of the University of Iowa who had conducted botanical explorations on the island of Jamaica and was completing his Ph.D. in botany. Clifford was impressed with the engaging young woman, who showed considerable skill at preparing microscope slides, and was ardently courting her when he was offered a position as assistant professor of plant physiology at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. To be near Clifford, Wanda soon took a position as an instructor in botany at Kansas State Agricultural College, and the couple married on May 28, 1917, establishing a collaboration that was to be scientific as well as personal.

World War I was underway, and when Clifford was assigned wartime research in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry, Farr procured a microscope to finish her thesis. After receiving her master's degree from Columbia in 1918, she taught in the botany department of Texas A&M. In the autumn of 1919, Clifford transferred to his alma mater in Iowa City, and the two began to conduct joint research on plant cells. After the birth of their only child, Robert Farr, on July 3, 1920, Farr stopped teaching, but she continued her independent research on living plant cells in Clifford's laboratory. The couple cultivated grapevines, bottling their own grape juice, and their interest in plant physiology dominated their home. As a child, Robert would complain to house guests that he could not find any books to read at home because he preferred "anything that doesn't have plants in it." In later years, Robert Farr was a science writer and war correspondent for Scripps-Howard and CBS.

In 1925, Clifford accepted a position as associate professor in the Henry Shaw School of Botany at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where Farr worked as a botany instructor and continued with their research. Here they began to develop new methods for the microscopic investigation of plant growth, particularly the growth of root hairs in solutions and cell division in pollen mother cells.

Clifford's interest in root hairs grew out of his observations that these hairs, unlike other cells that enlarged along numerous paths, grew from one cell of the root's surface, in one direction. He initiated further research to uncover a uniform means of understanding cell growth. Farr meanwhile went to work as a research associate for Dr. Montrose Burrows, who had perfected techniques of removing living cells from animal organisms and transferring them to grow in petri dishes, at the Barnard Skin and Cancer Hospital. Farr adapted Burrows' methodology to her research on plant cells and took up the study of advanced mathematics to improve her research procedures.

From 1925 to 1927, the Farrs spent their summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where they measured the elongation of aquatic root hairs through micrometer eye-pieces every ten minutes in a dark basement room. Clifford published the results of their root-hair growth studies in a two-year series in the American Journal of Botany and presented their data to the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine and the first international congress on soil science, while also producing popular articles about plant growth for the Atlantic Monthly.

Aware of a chronic heart ailment, Clifford tried to prepare Wanda for his early demise. He saved funds for her to earn a Ph.D. so that she could financially support their son and urged her to begin such studies. Farr, who only wanted to attend Columbia, delayed the studies because she did not wish to be separated from her family at this time; in fact, she was never to earn a Ph.D.

When Clifford died on February 10, 1928, in St. Louis, Washington University administrators asked Farr to teach his courses. She was lecturing and perpetuating his laboratory research within a week. Later that year, the National Academy of Sciences agreed to finance her studies on root-hair growth through the Bache Fund.

On her own, Farr's botanical work moved into a highly productive new phase, focusing on plant fibers for academia, government, and industry. In late 1928, she entered the industrial sector when she accepted a yearlong position as investigator of plant physiology for the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Inc., at Yonkers, New York. Founded by Colonel William Boyce Thompson in 1924, the institute operated on a $10 million endowment created through mining investments, and its declared mission was the study of fundamental life processes through basic plant physiology research in order to increase crop yields that could lead to the general improvement of society. Farr bought a white-frame, colonial house near the institute, hired an English housekeeper to look after her son, and set up further root-hair studies. The following year, her reputation as a researcher led to her appointment as associate cotton technologist for the Division of Cotton Marketing in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Agricultural Economics, to assist the cotton industry in grading the quality of field cotton.

In the 1920s, cotton was a vital agricultural crop in the U.S. Its growth is similar to that of root hairs, extending from a single cell on the seed. For a decade during the 1930s, Farr carried out her research in a Washington, D.C., laboratory, studying cell differentiation, especially in the formation and structure of the cell walls of cotton fibers, and examining field samples provided by Clemson College in South Carolina, showing cotton at different stages of maturity.

In 1930, Farr returned to her laboratory at Boyce Thompson Institute. In addition to the cotton fibers she received from the South, she cultivated plants in greenhouses at Yonkers in order to study their maturation firsthand. This close proximity to the maturing cotton plants enabled her to observe cotton-fiber development. Through an arrangement with the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, she utilized its X-ray laboratory to learn microscopic and chemical techniques, particularly X-ray diffraction, for the analysis of her cell samples.

Working with microchemist Dr. Sophia H. Eckerson , Farr considered the structural problems in developing cotton. At first, the two scientists made microscopic observations of cellulose-forming bacterium, especially their membranes. In 1936, they were able to increase their facilities and staff through funds provided by the Chemical Foundation, Inc. Designated director of the new cellulose laboratory, Farr welcomed such skilled scientists as Drs. Florence L. Barrows and Wayne A. Sisson and supervised specialists that included organic chemists, bacteriologists, microscopists, X-ray chemists, and a photographer, on a carefully utilized budget of $40,000.

In the laboratory's detailed dissection and analysis of plant life, experiments with cotton fibers concentrated on cell enlargement in root hairs as they developed from the seed's epidermal cells. Use of polarized light and X-ray diffraction revealed new information about root hairs that originated from cells that divided before fertilization, root-hair structure, and how the root hairs received nutrition from the seed. By 1940, when a lack of funding brought the project to an end, Farr's cell membrane analyses had clarified basic formational and structural problems.

During this ten-year period, Farr's research provided one of the major underpinnings of modern botany through its analysis of the fundamental plant material, cellulose. Plants, unlike animals (including humans), which rely on the consumption of animal and vegetable matter for basic nutrients, are self-sustaining, utilizing only soil and air for the manufacture of nourishment within their own cells. Cellulose, the basic material providing the structural framework of plants, had long intrigued the scientific community. To understand how the plant cells produce their own food, scientists examined cell structures and discovered that microscopic plastids, floating in cellular protoplasm, process hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce starches, which are held within the plant as food reserves. The conversion of these starches into sugars fuels plant growth.

Plant cells, unlike animal cells, are surrounded by a rigid cell wall formed of cellulose. This tissue material provides support for the plant and insures that its leaves are exposed to sunlight. Using microscopes, scientists before Farr had been able to observe the manufacture of starches and sugars within plants, but the process of cellulose production eluded them. Cellulose particles would appear in cellular protoplasm suddenly and fully-formed, already aligned and attached to cell walls. For almost a century before Farr began her work, botanists had sought to observe the origin of cellulose particles.

The walls of cotton fibers consist of almost 90% cellulose. At the Boyce Thompson Institute, Farr and her researchers determined that each cotton fiber contained a mass of cellulose fibrils cemented together to form a single strong fiber. Although they pinpointed information valuable to the cotton industry about the structure, growth, chemical content, and strengths and weaknesses of the cotton fibers, they were unable to detect cellulose formation.

In the late 1930s, Farr began to examine a single-celled green algae, Halicystis, sent to her from Bermuda. Using high-powered microscopes to magnify and photograph the algae, she observed the manufacture of cellulose in the same plastids of the Halicystis that manufactured starch, and realized that plastids in cotton fibers might be invisible in the cell because they shared similar refractive indexes with the cell's protoplasm.

Up to this point, the cellulose-manufacturing plastids were water-mounted on slides for viewing under the microscope. By mounting the cotton fibers in their own juices, Farr rendered the plastids visible. She was then able to view the manufacture of cellulose, and the explosion of the plastid that released visible cellulose particles into the cell's protoplasm. Farr discovered that plastids in the cotton-fiber cells were miniature cellulose factories, processing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen into a compound for the manufacture of cellulose, much as plastids in leaf cells produced starch. She also revealed that cellulose could be produced without chlorophyll, the photosynthetic material that provides plants with their green color.

In December 1939, Farr presented her discoveries in a session of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Ohio. The work earned her laurels as a national authority in plant physiology and as the most prominent woman in contemporary science. The New York Times, however, repeatedly used masculine pronouns in referring to the discoveries of "Dr. Farr" (who may have held an honorary title by then), while other publications described her as a "dark and slender woman" who was "versatile, chic, vivacious, as modern as tomorrow."

Although some scientists had been skeptical about aspects of her previously published exploratory work, her new conclusions quickly gained acceptance and respect among the majority of the scientific community. Scientists anticipated their application in the artificial creation of infinite food and fuel supplies, while industry, hoping to duplicate the natural process, yearned to produce synthetic materials that were structural imitations of fiber, cloth, paper, and wood.

When scientists were unable to duplicate her findings, Farr was able to demonstrate how the problem lay in their methodology. In preparing their specimens for microscopic slides, these scientists used techniques that included softening the specimens in a blender to a slush, which altered their basic structure and rendered them incapable of being compared with her living plant cell samples.

Farr was named a fellow of the Royal Microscope Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was active in the New York Academy of Sciences and the Society for the Study of Development and Growth, and contributed scholarly articles to journals including the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Contributions from Boyce Thompson Institute, and the Journal of Physical Chemistry. As the professional honors mounted, she was also asked to lend her expertise to the analysis of fiber samples from the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut for the Metropolitan Museum to determine if they were cotton or linen. Meanwhile, she monitored the education of her son (who studied scientific journalism), collected botanical specimens near Yonkers, and gardened in her backyard.

In 1940, she became involved in the Allied effort of World War II as a research micro-chemist for the American Cyanamid Company in Stamford, Connecticut. By 1943, she had transferred to the research division of the Celanese Corporation of America in Summit, New Jersey, where she analyzed natural and synthetic materials.

In 1954, Farr left Celanese to initiate a career as a research consultant. She served as Curie lecturer at Pennsylvania State University and established a laboratory in St. Clairsville, Ohio, in 1955. Continuing to focus on living cells, she began research with fungi and the derivation of antibiotics, and worked on the manuscript for a book, tentatively titled "Plant Histochemistry and Cytochemistry," but its publication has not been confirmed. In 1957, she consulted for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation and for the British American Tobacco Company the following year.

In 1957, Farr also returned to academia as an associate professor of botany at the University of Maine, where she cooperated with the college's Agricultural Experiment Station, participated in a research project on poultry fungal infections funded by the National Institute of Health, and gave occasional lectures up to 1968. Utilizing her special knowledge of the chemical composition of plant cell walls, she explored how to prevent fungi from destroying tissue in both plants and animals. The New York Academy of Sciences honored her for her accomplishments in this area of research, and the E.I. DuPont Company featured her as one of six famous American women scientists in its January–February 1960 issue of Better Living. During this period, Farr also established the Farr Cytochemical Laboratory, first in her home at Camden, Maine, then in Nyack, New York, where she moved in 1969. She continued consulting with the Celanese Corporation based in Cumberland, Maryland. Under government contracts, she conducted food and waste research for NASA and General Foods, Inc., in her home laboratories into the early 1970s, when she was past 75.

Little is known of Farr's personal life in her latter years. After Clifford's death, she married Roy Christopher Faulwetter, who was also a scientist; Boyce Thompson records indicate the change of surname on her personnel papers in December 1930, and newspaper indexes in 1940, citing her discovery of the origin of cellulose, list her by her second husband's surname. Farr and Faulwetter divorced sometime during the 1940s, and he died in Detroit, Michigan, in 1967. Since Farr guarded her privacy carefully, much of what is known about her is taken from the biographical profiles of her first husband's career.

Details of Farr's death are similarly elusive. According to the Social Security death index, she died in April 1983. The place of her death is unknown; her last Social Security check was sent to Rockland, Maine, possibly her son's place of residence at that time, but no death certificate was filed in her name in that state. It is known that she suffered a stroke in April 1971, but recovered slightly and was able to spend about two hours daily in her laboratory. As her condition worsened, she was unable to write, and relied on a nurse to communicate for her. She sought newspaper publicity only because she was desperate to donate her vast laboratory equipment, estimated to be worth $60,000, to scientists when the lease on her Nyack apartment expired. In the mid-1970s, this was her last published address. Neither The New York Times nor the major professional scientific journals carried an obituary notice to mark her passing.

Described as a woman whose "world revolves around her microscopes, her test tubes, her cameras," Wanda Farr practiced the deliberative scientific methodology that she endorsed, expounding her motto, "A credulous student hardly ever makes a successful scientist," to students who visited her laboratory. Her research for government and industry resulted in significant scientific achievements through the synthesis of basic materials that add to comfort in daily life through stronger, more affordable, and readily abundant consumer goods. More important, her unquenchable curiosity, lack of gullibility, and challenging attitudes led to the resolution of the scientific mystery surrounding the fundamental component of plant life, cellulose, that had befuddled multitudes of scientists for decades.


"Cellulose Scientist," in The New York Times. December 31, 1939, section IV, p. 2.

Farr, Wanda K. "Plant Cell Membranes," in Growth of Plants: Twenty Years' Research at Boyce Thompson Institute. Chapt. 8. Edited by William Crocker. NY: Reinhold Publishing, 1948.

Laurence, William L. "Cellulose Factory Located in Plants: Dr. W.K. Farr Tells Scientists Mystery of Place of Origin is Solved," in The New York Times. December 27, 1939, p. 22.

McLaughlin, Kathleen. "Challenging Approach to Study Brings Rewards to Scientist: Dr. Wanda Farr, Head of Cellulose Laboratories in Yonkers, Is Noted for Researches," in The New York Times. January 14, 1940, section II, p. 8.

"No Takers for $60,000 Lab," in Nyack Journal News. March 8, 1972.

"Woman Scientist Discovers How Plants Make Cellulose," in Science News Letter. Vol. 37, January 6, 1940, pp. 6–7.

Yost, Edna. American Women of Science. Rev. ed. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1955.

suggested reading:

McCallan, S.E.A. A Personalized History of Boyce Thompson Institute. Yonkers: Boyce Thompson Institute, 1975.

Morton, Alan G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany From Ancient Times to the Present Day. London: Academic Press, 1981.

Reed, Howard S. A Short History of the Plant Sciences. Waltham, MA: Chronica Botanica, 1942.

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Slack, Nancy G. "Nineteenth-Century American Women Botanists: Wives, Widows, and Work," in Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science 1789–1979. Edited by Pnina G. Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram. Foreword by Margaret W. Rossiter. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987, pp. 77–103.

Elizabeth D. Schafer , Ph.D., freelance writer in history of technology and science, Loachapoka, Alabama

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