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Heroines of research

by Guest Author on 21 May 2013

Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)

Clockwise from bottom left: Audrey Smith, Elsie Widdowson (from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’), Mary Lyon, Kay Davies and Uta Frith (credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images)

In this article from our most recent Network magazine, Sarah Harrop takes a look at some of the most eminent MRC-funded women scientists from the MRC’s past 100 years.

Audrey Smith: discovery of cryobiology

Known as the ‘mother of cryobiology’, Audrey Smith of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research discovered — in the early 1960s — how to store biological material at low temperature, pioneering techniques for the freezing of sperm, blood, bone marrow, corneas and many other tissues. Freezing of sperm, eggs and embryos is now a key part of many IVF programmes.

Elsie Widdowson: nutrition expert

Elsie Widdowson became highly-respected for her1946 study of the impact of poor wartime diet on those in Nazi-occupied territories, and carried out MRC-funded self-experimentation to test the safety of food rationing ahead of the outbreak of WW2. A huge body of influential nutrition research followed, including studying the importance of the nutritional content of infant diets, particularly trace vitamins and minerals in natural and artificial human milk, leading to revised UK standards for breast milk substitutes in the 1980s.

Mary Lyon: discovery of X-inactivation

While studying the effects of radiation on DNA in the early 1960s, Dr Mary Lyon discovered that one of two copies of the X-chromosome in women can be inactivated. This explained the absence of symptoms in female carriers of inherited diseases associated with this chromosome such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and colour-blindness, which affect mainly men. The MRC’s world-renowned centre for mouse genetics at Harwell was named the Mary Lyon Centre in recognition of her important contributions to research in mammalian genetics.

Kay Davies: fighting muscular dystrophy

In the 1980s Dame Professor Kay Davies developed the first test for screening pregnant women to find out whether their baby was at risk of having the inherited muscle wasting disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). In 1989 she made a further breakthrough when she discovered the gene which codes for utrophin, a molecule which is missing in DMD patients and which points the way to treatments for the disease. Pharmaceutical company trials of new drugs based around this discovery are underway. Kay is Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit in Oxford.

Uta Frith: changing the face of autism

Professor Uta Frith is a developmental psychologist who is best known for her research on autism spectrum disorders. In 1989 she published a handbook called Autism: explaining the enigma, which is now used by psychiatrists worldwide. Her work on theory of mind in autism proposed the idea that people with autism have specific difficulties understanding other people’s beliefs and desires – the subject of a seminal paper published with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. She is also well regarded for her body of work on Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia.

Sarah Harrop

This article was first published in the Spring 2013 edition of our magazine Network.


It is always easy to point out peole that have been left out in a survey like this one on eminent women scientists supported by the MRC. But there is one whose omission is glaring, namely that of the late Dr, Rosalind (Ros) Pitt-Rivers. Ros, who spent most of her profssional life at NIMR, was the co-discoverer of the biologically active thyroid hormone tri-iodothyronine.

author avatar by Jamshed Tata on 23-May-2013 13:24

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