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Leading women

Fungi and the forces: The pioneering life of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan


On UK Fungus Day, Dr Elizabeth Dearnley explores the life and work of Leading Woman Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, mycologist and military pioneer.

As autumn gets underway, mushrooms and toadstools become an increasingly common sight in woodlands and hedgerows, from delicate pink-and-white field mushrooms to the fairy-tale glamour of the fly agaric. However, in less visible forms, fungi play a key role in many parts of our lives, their powers harnessed in products as diverse as statins and fabric softener.

Much about them remains mysterious; it’s estimated that the kingdom of fungi may contain nearly 4 million species, of which only 120,000 have yet been identified. A handful of these – such as Palaeoendogone gwynne-vaughaniae and Pleurage gwynne-vaughaniae – are named after a scientist whose pioneering academic career was matched only by her remarkable achievements in establishing the women’s armed forces as we know them today: Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.

Fly Agaric toadstools in mossy autumn woodland

Early life: From debutante to demonstrator

Helen Fraser was born in 1879 London into an aristocratic Scottish family, the daughter of an army captain and a novelist. After her father’s early death, the career of her diplomat stepfather meant Helen was largely educated abroad by governesses, although she spent her final school year at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. At 17, she became a somewhat reluctant debutante – but two summers spent working with her mother and sister in London girls’ clubs, which introduced her to working-class women, made her aware of her leadership abilities.

Aged 20, she convinced her doubtful family to allow her to study for the Oxford entrance examinations to the ladies’ department of King’s College London, and became one of the college’s first women students, gaining a BSc in Botany in 1904. Acting as research assistant to mycologist V. H. Blackman during her studies, following graduation she became his demonstrator for a year. The following year she worked as demonstrator for Royal Holloway College botanist Margaret Benson; the year after that she was offered an assistant lectureship. While at Royal Holloway, she also remained active in women’s rights movements, co-founding the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson.

Helen’s own research – on the development of reproductive systems of fungi – led to her receiving her DSc in 1907. She began a lectureship at University College, Nottingham, but by 1909 had returned to London to head the Botany department at Birkbeck College – aged just 30, she was one of the youngest applicants, and the only woman.

Helen’s predecessor at Birkbeck, a specialist in plant anatomy named David Gwynne-Vaughan, had left London to become Professor of Botany at Queen’s University Belfast. The Irish Sea between them did not prevent the two from embarking upon a romance, and they married in 1911. The Gwynne-Vaughans maintained a long-distance marriage (managing to spend six months together each year), until David’s early death from tuberculosis in 1915.

'An interesting proposal': Helen's military career

In 1917, high numbers of casualties on the front lines of World War I had led the War Office to conclude that women should be deployed in France – the first time that women had been enlisted in the British armed forces. Up until this point, nursing had been the only work open to women within the military. After some debate as to the roles deemed appropriate for women (cooks, typists, mechanics, drivers – although not clothing store workers, in case they saw men getting changed), suitable women leaders were needed. Helen’s family connections with the military, as well as her links with Louisa Garrett Anderson (who had founded the Women’s Hospital Corps) led her to be appointed chief controller of the newly-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, leading a corps of some 10,000 women in France.

Members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps drilling in Hyde Park, 1917-1918

Despite facing prejudice from senior officers, Helen’s remarkable wartime achievements led to her being appointed a military CBE – the first woman to receive this honour – and the head of the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918. In her book, Junior Leader, Helen described being offered this post:

The Adjutant-General said he had an interesting proposal for me: would I like to be head of the Women's Royal Air Force? Since I could imagine no work more worth doing than the post I held, I said, "No thank you". He urged the advantages, till at last I asked whether this was by any chance an order. I learnt that it was.

Spending a further 15 months streamlining the WRAF, Helen was appointed DBE in 1919. Air Vice-Marshall Sir William Sefton Brancker described her work thus:

'By the end of the year the WRAF was the best disciplined and best turned-out women's organization in the country. This remarkable achievement was due to... Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.'

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan in uniform

Professorships and politics

Helen returned to civilian life a public figure, now supercharged by her wartime organisational experience. In 1921, she was appointed a Professor of Botany at Birkbeck, where her administrative and leadership skills enabled her to attract outstanding students and lecturers to her department. She also published extensively on the genetics of reproduction in fungi, with her 1927 study The Structure and Development of the Fungi (co-authored with B. Barnes) becoming a standard university text, and became President of the Mycological Society in 1928.

In the 1920s, Helen became more closely involved with politics, standing (unsuccessfully) as the Conservative candidate for North Camberwell during three general elections. She maintained close ties with the women’s armed services during peacetime, and in 1939 was appointed the first director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service for women officers. She remained a firm believer in the benefits of national service for women, writing in 1944:

The discipline, the comradeship, the co-operation, the concentration on the service of the community…are as important, and as necessary, for girls as for boys.

Returning to Birkbeck in 1941, Helen retired in 1944, after which she remained working full-time as honorary secretary of the London branch of the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Air Force Association until 1962. By the time of her death in 1967 at the age of 88, she was widely recognised as one of the most distinguished women of her generation in two very separate fields: mycology and the military.

So, this Fungus Day, celebrate the diversity of Britain’s fungi by attending one of the British Mycological Society’s events across the UK – and remember the remarkable life of Helen Gywnne-Vaughan.

Dr Elizabeth Dearnley teaches within the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL and is Communications & Engagement Assistant for the University of London’s Leading Women campaign. You can find her on Twitter @eliza_dearnley.