Agnes Arber (1879 – 1960) was a plant morphologist and became the third woman (and first female botanist) to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Arber was also awarded the Linnean Society gold medal. Due to the University of Cambridge administration at the time, Arber spent a large proportion of her career working in a small laboratory in her own house at 52 Huntingdon Road rather than having a formal position and space in the University.

Born Agnes Robertson, 23 February 1879, she was the first child of Agnes Turner and Henry Robertson. Aged eight, she attended the North London Collegiate School for Girls, which provided girls with a serious education, rather than a 'finishing' in social graces, and had a strong commitment to teaching science. Ethel Sargant, a plant morphologist from Girton College, Cambridge, came to read papers at the school’s science club; Agnes Robertson went on to work in Sargant's laboratory, in the garden of her home in Reigate, during vacations.

She studied for a degree at University College London (UCL), and went on to take a further degree at the University of Cambridge, in Newnham College. At this time, in 1899, women were not members of the University, admitted to practical classes in laboratories, or awarded degrees.

In 1902 Agnes returned to Ethel Sargant's laboratory in Reigate, and in 1903 published her first paper in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 'Notes on the anatomy of Macrozamia heteromera'. She returned to UCL as a research student carrying out research on gymnosperms, and in 1905 she was awarded a DSc. Shortly after being appointed lecturer in August 1909 Agnes left UCL and married Edward Newell Arber, moving to Cambridge.

In 1912 Agnes Arber was appointed to a one-year research fellowship at Newnham College, and published her first book: Herbals, a survey of the beautiful books that were the centre of botanical studies for several centuries, important for naming and classifying plants for medicinal purposes. In July 1912 the couple's only child, Muriel, was born.

In 1918 Newell Arber died at the age of 48. Arber did not remarry, but carried on with her research, largely unpaid, as a single parent. Muriel said of her mother, ‘She snatched time from her writing to do the necessary minimum of domestic things, not the other way round.’

Before Ethel Sargant’s death, she had asked Arber to take over the production of a book for the Cambridge Botanical Handbooks series, and in 1925 she published The Monocotyledons; this group of plants formed a strong strand of Arber's empirical research. This was followed by Water Plants, published by Cambridge University Press in 1920, and The Gramineae in 1934.

For 17 years Arber worked in the Balfour Laboratory that belonged to Newnham College. It had been established in 1884 with £1000 in donations, because although at the time they were permitted to attend University lectures, laboratory demonstrations and practical classes were generally closed to women. Teaching was provided mainly by female research fellows of Newnham and Girton Colleges, who also undertook their own biological sciences research in the Balfour Laboratory. As women gained access to University resources, the laboratory went into decline; when the space was sold to the University, they were unable to allow Arber to continue her work. Arber was offered the laboratory equipment she had used in the Balfour to use in her home at 52 Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, and thanked the Principal for the 'opportunity of quiet and independent research this afforded [her]'. Her experience of working in Ethel Sargant's garden laboratory likely opened her up to the possibilities.

(Photo copyright the National Portrait Gallery)

In 1950 she published The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form, which linked her practical experience with a discussion of her ideas about the philosophy of plant morphology. The following book, The Mind and the Eye, received a favourable review in Nature: 'Mrs Arber's book stands out as a work of genuine scholarship and special timeliness. It ought to be prescribed reading for every fresh graduate who proposes to begin research'.

The obituary of Arber in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London said ‘To many she was the 'lady of botany' and young biologists should think of an acute and powerful observer wrapt in penetrating and ever more powerful philosophy, who grasped the world without travel, and how they attract into the circle of discussion such another if they are fortunate.’

Agnes Arber died 22 March 1960 in Cambridge.

(Photo L:R Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith (Cambridge University), Penny Heath (CambridgePPF), Lucy Pollard (Agnes great niece) and Cllr Baiju Thittala Varkey (Mayor of Cambridge) by Chris Loades copyright Cambridge University)

Agnes' blue plaque was installed at 52 Huntingdon Road in 2024, which was also the 300th anniversary of the appointment of the first Professor of Botany at Cambridge, and was marked by a year of celebration for the University Department of Plant Sciences.

An unveiling event for the plaque took place on 30 May 2024 at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. During this event an Agnes Arber PhD thesis prize for comparative biology was announced, which it is hoped will support the next generation of pioneering botanists, following in the footsteps of Agnes.

Sam Brockington a Professor of Evolutionary Biology & Curator at Cambridge University Botanic Garden in May 2024 said, “the University’s rich legacy in botany is marked by notable discoveries across many areas of the Plant Sciences. This year of celebrations is highlighting some of our scientific achievements including the work of Agnes Arber. We are delighted to be supporting a blue plaque to recognize her work."

Lucy Pollard, Agnes’ great niece in 2024 “'our family are delighted that she is to receive this belated recognition. I remember her as a kind, quiet, unassuming person: I’m ashamed that, as a child, I had no idea that she was also a distinguished scholar”.

The plaque and unveiling event for Agnes Arber were kindly sponsored by Cambridge University and the family of Agnes Arber.