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Wonder Women

of Manchester

The brilliant work and research that is happening now at Manchester Museum and The University of Manchester builds on the legacy of our predecessors. This is a celebration of some of the outstanding women who have lived, studied or worked in Manchester, who have shaped not only the museum and university, but also the world in which we live.

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Lydia Becker
Lydia Becker.jpeg

Lydia Ernestine Becker, 29 July 1873

(Source: Oldham Local Studies and Archive)

Lydia Becker


Lydia Ernestine Becker was a pioneering figure in the early suffrage movement in Britain. She was also an award-winning botanist and one of the first women in Britain to publish a scientific paper on botany.


Between the 1860s and her death in 1890, Lydia played a key role in the campaign for women's suffrage, encouraging women to speak publicly and campaign. She was an inspiration for the suffragettes of the early twentieth century.

Lydia Becker was born in Manchester in 1827, the eldest of fifteen children. Her father, Hannibal Leigh Becker was the son of German immigrant Ernst Hannibal Becker, and like his father was a successful manufacturing chemist. Lydia was educated at home and was influential in the education of her younger siblings.


Although there is very little information about her younger sister, Victoria, Lydia’s influence can be seen in the lives of her daughters. Victoria's daughter, Alice Crompton was also a women’s rights campaigner and became the first woman to graduate with a degree in Classics from Owens College (now, the University of Manchester). Alice also became the head of the Manchester Settlements Women's House. And Victoria’s younger daughter, Winifred Mary Crompton became the first Assistant Keeper of Egyptology at Manchester Museum.


Education for girls of all classes was a cause that Lydia was to actively campaign for, and in 1870 she was elected to the Manchester School Board.

Lydia Becker –  Botanist

Growing up in Reddish Vale (then part of Heaton Norris), and from 1850 living in Altham, Lydia Becker developed a strong interest botany. In 1864 Lydia entered the Royal Horticultural Society‘s 1864 Botanical Competition. Competitors were required to submit a collection of pressed plants from a British county, Lydia’s collection from the area around her home in Altham won a silver medal for the best entry from Lancashire and a further gold medal for one of the best collections overall. Some of the herbarium sheets that Lydia entered into this competition now form part of Manchester Museum’s collection.

Lydia became a well-respected botanist, publishing 'Botany for Novices' in 1864. Becker also exchanged letters and samples with Charles Darwin which demonstrate her wide knowledge and her position as an expert, especially on bisexual and hermaphroditic plants.

​Lydia’s pursuit of botany and the scientific direction that she took was encouraged and supported by her second cousin and the first Medical Officer of Health for Manchester, John Leigh. Lydia’s correspondence with her cousin reveals how he mentored her, encouraging her to present a scientific paper at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1869.


During the nineteenth century women were excluded from many scientific institutions. Lydia’s rejection by the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester was a catalyst for her formation of the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society and her activism for women’s rights and education.

Lydia Becker – Activist

After hearing Barbara Bodichon’s lecture ‘Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women’ at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Social Science in 1866, Lydia was to dedicate the rest of her life to women’s suffrage. Lydia Becker’s contributions were extensive and have been well documented, including convening the first meeting of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1867 and speaking at the inaugural public meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1868.


Lydia Becker lectured across the country campaigning for women’s rights and she founded and was a key contributor to the Women’s Suffrage Journal. Through Lydia’s work and determination, by her death in 1890 there had been a definite shift towards the enfranchisement of women. Lydia Becker also had significant influence on others; Becker’s determined and forceful speeches made her a role model and an inspiration for the suffragettes. Famously, a fourteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst was inspired by a speech given by Lydia Becker in Manchester which she had been taken to by her mother.


Lydia Becker’s organisational skills were exemplary; she quickly gained recognition as the suffrage movement’s key strategist, directing national policy and tactics and coordinating demonstrations held across the country, which attracted huge crowds and significant publicity for the cause. Lydia became a key figure in the Victorian political landscape. However, despite the support for her work there was also strong opposition, and she was frequently ridiculed, especially in the popular press and in political cartoons.

After Lydia died in 1890, it was still 30 years before the Representation of the People Act, which granted the vote to 8 million women. However, even though she did not live to see the the full impact of her work, Lydia Becker remains one of the most important figures in women’s suffrage both during her lifetime and after her death.


References and further reading:

Alberti, S.J.M.M. (2017) Nature and Culture: Objects, Disciplines and the Manchester Museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Antonovics, J., Gibby, M. and Hood, M.E. (2021) ‘John Leigh, Lydia Becker and their shared botanical interests’. In Archives of Natural History 48(1), pp. 62-76.


Batsleer, J. (2018) Practices of Friendship: Youth Work and Feminist Activism in Manchester. Available from:


Becker, L.E. (1864) Botany for Novices: A short outline of the natural system of classification of plants. Available from:


Chetham’s Library (2017) Bright Hopes for Suffrage: Lydia Becker and the Struggle for Democracy. Available from:


Chetham’s Library (2022) The Great Miss Lydia Becker: Suffragist, Scientist and Trailblazer. Available from:

Fabian, J. (2018) Lydia Ernestine Becker. Available from:

Herbology Manchester (2009) Lydia Becker mystery. Available from:


Herbology Manchester (2015) Voting, suffrage and dancing butterflies. Available from:


Holmes, M. (n.d.) Lydia Becker: A Cameo Life-Sketch. Available from:


Irving, S. (2010) Lydia Becker (1827-1890): the fight for votes for women. Available from:


Manchester High School for Girls (1884) Prospectus, 1884-5. Available from:


Middleton, R. (2014) ‘The Royal Horticultural Society’s 1864 botanical competition’. In Archives of Natural History 41(1), pp. 25-44.


Natstand (n.d.) Becker, Lydia Ernestine (1827-1890). Available from:


Parker, J.E. (2001) ‘Lydia Becker’s ‘school for science’: a challenge to domesticity. In Women’s History Review 10(4), pp. 629-50.


Parker, J. (n.d.) Lydia Becker: Pioneer Orator of the Women’s Movement. Available from:


Purvis, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London: Routledge, 2002.


Simpkin, J. (1997) Lydia Becker. Available from:


Stocks, M.D. (1955) Fifty Years in Every Street: the story of the Manchester University Settlement. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Tylecote, M. (1941) The Education of Women at Manchester University, 1883 to 1933. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


University of Cambridge (n.d.) Darwin Correspondence Project: Lydia Becker. Available from:


Walker, L. (2004) Becker, Lydia Ernestine, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/1899.


Williams, J.M. (2022) The Great Miss Lydia Becker: Suffragist, Scientist & Trailblazer. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books.


The Women’s Library, London School of Economics (n.d.)  Autograph Letter Collection: Becker Collection. Catalogue available from:

Margaret Murray
Margaret Murray.jpeg

Margaret Murray


Margaret Murray is perhaps best-known in Manchester as the Egyptologist who unwrapped the mummies of the 'Two Brothers'.


She was a pioneer who shook institutional foundations, campaigning for improvements in women’s status within academia. And by targeting some of her publications for a general audience, she extended the study of Egyptology beyond the university walls, inspiring her readers with the stories, myths and history of ancient Egypt.

Margaret Alice Murray was born on 13 July 1863 in Calcutta, India, the daughter of wealthy English parents. Her early years growing up in India were to have a lasting impact on her life; Amara Thornton considers that Margaret Murray had a “hybrid transnational identity” that was both British and Indian.


Margaret and her sister, Mary, were given a strong Christian education by their uncle, John - a vicar who believed in the inferiority of women. Although these were both things that Murray would reject through her career, it was her uncle who ignited her passion for archaeology.

Her life was to take her on ground-breaking adventures across the archaeological and theoretical landscapes of Egyptology, folklore and feminist political reform.

Mummies and Manchester

Margaret Murray is perhaps best-known in Manchester for the unwrapping of mummy, Khnum-Nakht, one of Manchester Museum’s famous residents, popularly known, together with Nakht-Ankh, as the ‘Two Brothers’.


Her Egyptology career began in 1894, when she commenced study at University College, London (UCL), in the newly opened department of Egyptology, learning hieroglyphs under Francis Llewelyn Griffith. And while Murray’s classmates were struggling, with the aid of a grammar book by Adolf Erman and her fluency in German, she began to forge ahead. It was at UCL that she developed both a professional relationship and a friendship with William Matthew Flinders Petrie, producing the drawings for the publications of his excavations at Qift and Koptos. Petrie encouraged Margaret to publish her own research and appointed her as a Junior Lecturer in 1899, making her the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom.

Margaret Murray was very aware of British 'Egyptomania', and recognised that along with an academic interest, there was a popular fascination around ancient Egypt. Therefore, to supplement her income from lecturing, she gave public classes and lectures at the British Museum and at Manchester Museum.

Unwrapping Khnum-Nakht

In 1907, Manchester Museum received the complete contents of  the tomb of the ‘Two Brothers’ which had been found intact during excavations at Deir Rifa. This included the mummies of Khnum-Nakht and Nakht-Ankh. And in 1908, Margaret Murray led the unwrapping of Khnum-Nakht. This was the first time that a woman had publicly unwrapped a mummy.


This unwrapping was not just remarkable because Murray was a woman. When mummies had been unwrapped previously, especially during the nineteenth century, these were often described rather as ‘unrollings’. A mummy had been considered a curiosity, and sometimes orientalised as a an exotic Egyptian princess which was being 'undressed'. Conversely, Murray’s unwrapping took an interdisciplinary scientific approach and has been hailed as the beginning of what has become known as the ‘Manchester Method’. And although in the 21st century Egyptologists use less invasive techniques, the scientific, methodical work that Murray carried out was an important turning point in Egyptology.

Egyptologist and Pioneer

Margaret Murray’s impact on academic Egyptology has often been overshadowed by the achievements of WMF Petrie, but Murray was an acclaimed archaeologist and a researcher in her own right.


Her first fieldwork in Egypt was as part of Petrie’s 1902-3 excavation in Abydos, and then during the following season in Saqqara. The publication of her transcriptions and translations of the inscriptions on the mastaba tombs at Saqqara proved particularly influential within the Egyptological community, with Petrie recognising Murray’s contribution to his own career.


Margaret Murray had joined the Abydos excavation as the site nurse. However, Petrie taught her how to excavate, and consequently she was given a senior position on the site. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the time, there were many workers on the site who did not want to take orders from a woman. Murray was a strong and determined woman, and this experience, along with discussions with other female excavators (some of whom were active in the feminist movement), shaped her future involvement in Feminist campaigning.

Feminist and Campaigner

Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist and an archaeologist in a man’s world. This was a world that she, and many others around her fought to change. She joined the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union, and took an active role at protests and marches, including the 1907 Mud March and the Women’s Coronation Procession in June 2011.

Margaret Murray lectured at UCL at a time when academia was a difficult place to find your way as a woman – despite her lectureship, UCL was not to appoint a female professor until 1949. Margaret spent much of her time at the London university campaigning on behalf of both staff and students for an improvement women’s status, facilities and working conditions.


The Grandmother of Wicca


At Manchester Museum, Murray is famed as an Egyptologist, however, during the First World War, with no possibility of continuing excavations in Egypt, Murray turned her focus to folklore and the witch-cult hypothesis – the theory that the witch trials of Early Modern Christendom were an attempt to extinguish a surviving pre-Christian pagan religion devoted to a Horned God.

Margaret Murray appears never to have been afraid of taking risks, and although her comprehensive publication on witchcraft have since been academically discredited, her work had a lasting impact on the emerging religious movement, and she consequently became affectionately known as ‘The Grandmother of Wicca’.

On the shoulders of giants

Margaret Murray celebrated her 100th birthday on 13 July 1963, with a huge celebration in her honour. She died later that year on 13th November, having left an indelible mark in all her areas of work, paving the way for many women Egyptologists, academics and researchers to come.


References and further reading:

Drower, M. S. 2004. “Margaret Alice Murray”

Herridge, T. (Trowel Blazers) Margaret Murray The Marvellous, Mud-Marching, Mummy-Unwrapping Margaret Murray 

Murray, M. A. 1921. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.

Sheppard, K. L. 2012. “Between Spectacle and Science: Margaret Murray and the Tomb of the Two Brothers”

Thornton, A. 2014. “Margaret Murray’s Meat Curry”

Whitehouse, R. 2013. “Margaret Murray (1863–1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archaeology Lecturer – The Two Brothers


Egypt at the Manchester Museum (Blog of Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan)

Erna Simon
Erna Simon.jpeg

Erna Simon


Erna Simon and her husband Ingo were passionate about archery. Erna was not only an enthusiast, collector and expert, she was also an Archery World Champion in 1937.


In 1970, Erna Simon established the Simon Archery Trust to ensure that her and her late husband's collection of around 4,000 bows, arrows and other archery-related objects would continue to be conserved, and held in trust for the access and benefit of the public at Manchester Museum.

Erna Emilie Caroline Seimert was born in London on 19 June 1894. Her father, Benno Seimert was a gold merchant. In 1928, Erna married Ingo Heinrich Julius William Gustav Simon, a singer, poet and teacher from Manchester with a passion for archery.


Together Erna and Ingo collected around 4,000 bows, arrows, and other archery-related objects. Their archery collection was made up of items from across the world including from Brazil, Europe, India, Pakistan, Japan, Central Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. Both Ingo and Erna spent many years researching the development of bows, and their collection is testament to this.

Erna Simon - World Champion

During her marriage to Ingo, Erna became an accomplished archer herself. Archery has long been celebrated for gender equality in competition. In 1904, it became the first sport to include a women’s event at the Olympic Games and was the first international federation to have a female president. In Classical Greece and Rome there were connections between strong women and archery, and this connection has once again found an outlet in popular culture today.


At the 1933 World Championships there was a separate women’s competition for the first time. In 1937 at the Archery World Championships in Paris, Erna Simon became ‘Lady World Champion’. At a time when very few women took part in competitive sports, Erna became a role model for future generations of sports women.

Erna Simon - The Legacy

In 1946, Erna and Ingo Simon made the decision to loan their collection to Manchester Museum. Following her husband's death in 1964, Erna continued to add to and research the collection. In 1970, she established the Simon Archery Trust to ensure that the collection would be maintained and developed. To safeguard the collection for future generations it was agreed that the Simon Archery Collection would continue to be stored and conserved at Manchester Museum; held in trust for the access and benefit of the public.

The Simon Archery Trust has funded projects that have expanded the collection including commissioning the prominent female Brazilian anthropologist Vilma Chiara to collect examples of Indigenous Brazilian archery on her Amazon expedition.

References and further reading:

Bow International (2020) Long distance shooting – a brief history. Available from:

Manchester Museum (n.d.) Archer. Available from:

Rigby, B. (2018) Erna Simon. Available from:

Stanley, J. (2020) Archery history: The sport that pioneered equality for women’s participation. Available from:'s%20first%20modern%20Olympic%20competition,the%20sport's%20first%20gold%20medal.

Wikipedia (n.d.) Ingo Simon. Available from:

Caroline Birley
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Caroline Birley


Caroline Birley was a geologist and mineralogist.


During her lifetime she discovered two new species of fossilised crustaceans from the Late Cretaceous. Her field collection was bequeathed to the Natural History Museum and Manchester Museum.


Caroline Birley also wrote children’s books and short stories.

Caroline Birley was born in Manchester on 16 November 1851 into a wealthy and distinguished family listed in Burke’s Peerage as ‘Landed Gentry’. Her family owned cotton and rubber factories and later also ran a charitable hostel for girls. Caroline’s brother Francis Birley was an amateur footballer who played for England, her uncle, Hugh Birley was the first Conservative MP for Manchester and another uncle, Herbert Birley was the chairman of the Manchester School Board.

Caroline Birley - Geologist

From a very young age Caroline Birley began collecting small stones and rocks. In 1864, she became a subscriber of Geological Magazine, initially paying for it with her pocket money before her grandmother gave her an allowance to cover the cost.


In the 19th century, palaeontology, geology and mineralogy were male dominated professions. It was partly due to her family’s wealth and support, but also her own determination that enabled Caroline to succeed in a field that she was passionate about. As a respected geologist and mineralogist, Caroline Birley attended the 1887 British Association for the Advancement of Science in Manchester and attended every year until her death.

Caroline Birley - Collector


Caroline Birley was an avid collector. She had amassed such a vast number of specimens that they could no longer fit in her home, so when the family moved to Salford, she had a special iron building constructed in garden for her collection. She named it ‘Seedley Museum’ and in 1888 she opened it to the public.

Birley continued to add to her collection throughout her life. Often accompanied by her friend Louisa Coupland, Caroline travelled extensively to many places including Egypt, Italy, Denmark, Faeroe Islands, Malta, Algiers, Corsica, Canada, Colorado, The Azores, France and Cape Town.

It was during a visit to Denmark that Caroline Birley collected two new species of fossilised crustaceans from the Late Cretaceous, Dromiopsis birleyae and D. coplanda. Following these discoveries, Dr Henry Woodward of the Natural History Museum stated:

“I dedicate this species to my friend Miss Caroline Birley, who has given so much time and attention to the study of geology and palaeontology both at home and abroad, and whose private collection bears testimony to her devotion to science.”

Caroline Birley - The Legacy

Following her death aged 55, her obituary in Geological Magazine described her as an independent woman who was held in such high regard amongst the more traditionally male collectors in this field.

Caroline Birley bequeathed her collection to the Natural History Museum and Manchester Museum. She was adamant that her name and contribution to science would be remembered and stipulated that all items be labelled as belonging to the Caroline Birley Collection.

References and further reading:


Back on the Road Again (2019) Caroline Birley: #surprisingsalford #42. Available from:


Bolton Museum and Archive Service (n.d.) Caroline Birley. Available from:


Craven, D.J. (n.d.) “This ardent geologist”: Caroline Birley. Available from:


Eccles Old Road (n.d.) Caroline Birley. Available from:

Geological Magazine (1907) Caroline Birley. Available from:


Wikipedia (n.d.) Caroline Birley. Available from:

Adela Breton
Adela Breton.jpeg

Adela Breton


Adela Breton was an artist, archaeologist, traveller and explorer who published her research alongside some of the most renowned scholars of Mesoamerican archaeology.

She travelled extensively in Mexico and South America where she made life-size copies of the frescoes in the temples. The details of her paintings show decoration, images and paintwork that has since been damaged beyond repair. 

Adela Catherine Breton was a determined, independent, and at times outspoken woman. She resisted the stereotypes of her generation, and forged her own path through life, and through the deserts and jungles of Mexico and South America.

Adela Breton was born on 31 December 1849, to Elizabeth and William Breton. It was perhaps from her father that Adela inherited the wanderlust, which was to become one of her defining characteristics. William Breton’s career with the Royal Navy took him all over the world, and he would bring back objects and curiosities, which gave Adela her first glimpse into the fascinating world of archaeology.


“I may tell you that I have been travelling & studying in Mexico for the last 12 years, & all my life have been learning archaeology as my Father was much interested in it.”


– Adela Breton to Richard Quick (Curator of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 1904-1921), 30 January 1905 (Bristol City Museum).


As was the way for Victorian ladies of Adela’s time, art and drawing will have formed an important part of her education, being taught by drawing masters. And by then it was not unheard of that women could earn money through their art and writing – nevertheless, Adela pushed this mould to breaking point.

Adela Breton - Traveller, artist, archaeologist

The fulfilment of her childhood dream of travelling came in the early 1890s, following the death of her father in 1887 (her mother had died in 1874). It was probably 1894 when she first journeyed to Mexico, where she travelled and sketched extensively. This was to shape her artistic and archaeological career.

Adela was a fine artist, even Edward Thompson, the United States Consul to the Yucatan, with whom she had a turbulent relationship, noted her skills. Having accused her of ‘meddling’ at Chichen Itza, he wrote to Frederic Putnam, Curator of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University:


“To my horror I found out the day I left Chichen that she proposes to return to Chichen shortly for another period of time. She certainly is an artist as regards landscapes at least and she has made one painting in the intervals of her work for Maudslay that is really very nice. She brought out the artistic points of the “Nunnery” in a wonderful manner.”


- Thompson to Putnam, 5 April 1900 (Harvard University Archives)

And again on 29 July 1900, Thompson wrote to Putnam:


“She has a very peculiar character but I think that she is one of those persons that improves as one knows them better. She most certainly is a true artist.” (Harvard University Archives)


Adela was less concerned with aesthetics than with accuracy. She would practice and paint the same architectural element over and over again, correcting each carefully. As she wrote to Alfred Tozzer, Instructor in Central American Archaeology at Harvard University, on 22nd August, 1921, “In that way one trains eye and hand.”

To make life-sized images was, quite literally, a huge task, and at one point she even enlisted the help of her brother, an expert draughtsman. And the more she worked, the more popular her work became, to the extent that the commissions that she was taking began to interfere with her own work and research. And by this point, that she had moved beyond simply travelling and sketching, but was making an archaeological impact. The more she became involved in recording the archaeology, the more she cited a need for an intimate knowledge of the languages.

The who's who of Mesoamerican archaeology


Adela is described in the 1911 census as ‘Archaeological Artist’. She started out as a landscape painter and as a copyist, but becoming more involved and invested in Mesoamerican archaeology, her later publications show how much broader and professional her involvement in the field had become. In her day, she would have been ranked among the ‘who’s who’ of Mesoamerican archaeology, corresponding with and publishing alongside the likes of Tozzer, Putnam, Bowditch, Zeila Nuttall, Maudslay and Seler – a distinguished, international group of scholars.


Despite Adela Breton’s contributions, her work all but disappeared from the history books of Mayan archaeology. Perhaps one of the reasons was that she didn’t quite fit. Her work was archaeological, centred around the meticulous water-coloured reproduction of the intricate carvings and monumental architecture, but by the 1960s, archaeology had entered a scientific era, that was distancing itself from fine art and sweeping landscapes. Further, the objects that Adela had collected for the most part did not come from archaeological excavations, and the processual march of the twentieth century was now privileging context and provenance. This decline in value left the Breton archive under a shroud of obscurity for nearly half a century.

Adela Breton – The Legacy


Today, there is a renewed interest in work like Breton’s, both from a historiographical perspective, but also in the value of the details of her paintings, which showing decoration, images and paintwork that has since been damaged beyond repair. 


From 1899, Breton loaned material to the newly established Bristol Art Gallery & Museum of Antiquities. In her letters, she urged the Director to establish it as a centre for Central American study in Britain and, in 1923, bequeathed her collection to the Museum. 

On 14 December 1899, Manchester Museum received a considerable number of obsidian implements from her collection. And in 1923, at her bequest received several figurines, depicting humans and reptiles. These object remain as Manchester Museum's tangible connection to Adela Breton, her life and her legacy.

References and further reading:

Devlin, K. (2014a) Adela Catherine Breton. Available from: – Adela Breton: A Career in Ruins

Devlin, K. (2014b) Adela Breton. Available from: – Adela Breton: The


Art Fund (2016) Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour. Available from: – Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour Exhibition


Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (2016) Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour. Available from: – Adela Breton

Lake Chapala Artists (2017) Adela Breton (1849-1923) visited Chapala in 1896. Available from: Lake Chapala Artists: Adela Breton


Giles, S. (2017) Adela Breton: Your last chance to see her work. Available from: – Adela Breton: Your last chance to see her work

Kathleen Drew Baker
Kathleen Drew-Baker_edited.jpg

Kathleen Drew-Baker


Kathleen Drew-Baker was a Manchester scientist and phycologist - a practitioner of a branch of science that studies algae.

She has become known as 'Mother of the Sea' and has been celebrated for half a century in Japan after her academic research made a lasting impact on the development of the commercial nori (edible seaweed) industry.

Born in Leigh, Lancashire in 1901, Kathleen Drew-Baker won a scholarship to study botany at the University of Manchester where she graduated in 1923 with first class honours. Drew-Baker served as a lecturer in Botany and as researcher from 1922 to 1957. She was awarded an Ashburne Hall Research Scholarship in 1922 and, in later years, joined the staff of the Manchester Botany Department where was awarded a research fellowship in the University’s Laboratory of Cryptogamic Botany.


Kathleen Drew-Baker – Putting sushi on the map


Although Drew-Baker never travelled to Japan, her academic research made a lasting contribution to the development of commercial nori (edible seaweed) production in the country. Cultivation of nori began in Japan in the 1600s. However, due to a change in farming methods, and after a series of typhoons in 1948, by the middle of the 20th century the seaweed bed was decimated. Since little was known about the life cycle of seaweeds, the seaweed industry began to decline as replacement plants could not be grown. In the same year, Drew-Baker published a landmark paper that saved Japan’s nori farmers, put sushi back on the menu, and paved the way for international seaweed cultivation.


Drew-Baker discovered a special phase of the life cycle of Porphyra umbilicalis, a North Wales and East Ireland coastline seaweed commonly known as laver. Laver is closely related to nori, and is traditionally mashed into a paste, rolled in oatmeal, and fried to make laver bread. Drew-Baker discovered that the large edible laver blades are male and female sex organs from which tiny offspring, known as a conchocelis emerge. These bore into seashells, where they develop into a filamentous crust capable of producing spores that develop into more laver blades. Using the same principles, the solution to the nori farmers’ problem was oyster shells, which proved to be reliable and this is still the basis of the nori industry today.


Kathleen Drew-Baker - Unpaid Research Fellow


Although Drew-Baker worked as a botany lecturer, following her marriage to Henry Wright-Baker in 1928 she was unable to continue in her teaching position due to the Universities policy of not employing married women. Kathleen’s ground-breaking research was carried out as an unpaid research fellow. With no funding, but with the support of her husband, she built a tidal tank in her laboratory, collecting specimens in old jam jars.


Kathleen Drew-Baker - ‘Mother of the Sea’


In Japan, Kathleen Drew-Baker has become known as the ‘Mother of the Sea‘, and each year on 14 April there is a festival in celebration of her work. A monument to her was erected in 1963 at the Sumiyoshi shrine in Uto, Kumamoto, Japan.



References and further reading:


The Seaweed Site (n.d.) Nori Cultivation. Available from:

BBC (2014) The Mother of the Sea. Available from:


Condron, N. (2015) Mother of the sea. Available from:


Dibbits, K. (2018) The incredible story of the “mother of the sea”. Available from:


Ludolini, C. (2018) Kathleen Drew-Baker. Available from:


Shervin, J. (2019) ‘Mother of the Sea’ – how Kathleen Drew-Baker saved sushi. Available from:

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