I’ve read it over and over: young women in academia need more female role models. I’m not exactly surrounded by options: I work at Silwood Park, where almost all faculty members are men, and I’m sure many other young women are in a similar situation. So, in the spirit of making remarkable women more visible, let me introduce you to Miriam Rothschild.
This is my hero, everyone.
Naturalists are born, not made
Name and title
The Hon. Dame Miriam Louisa Rothschild FRS
Date of birth
5th August 1908
Secret to a happy life
An interest in natural history and green things
Naturalists are born, not made
Shoe of choice
White Wellington boots (even wore wellingtons to Buckingham Palace)
Began collecting at the age of 4
Tutored in natural history by father and uncle. No formal education.
Parasitology, entomology, chemical ecology, conservation, marine biology.
Notable scientific achievements
- First to demonstrate that some Lepidoptera synthesize vertebrate-toxic compounds themselves, for example hydrocyanic acids produced by all stages of the Burnet moth Zygaena.
- First to demonstrate the sequestering by Lepidoptera of such vertebrate-toxic compounds from plants.
- Discovered how fleas jump using 6000 cutting serial dissections to work out the muscles, and high speed photography to show that fleas jump from their knees.
- Central to the discovery that fleas transmit myxomatosis in rabbits.
- Discovered that the breeding cycle of fleas are tied to the reproductive hormones of their rabbit hosts: the fleas’ ovaries only mature on pregnant rabbits, so flea reproduction is synchronised with the availability of newborn rabbits as hosts.
None, but claims to have invented the car seatbelt.
- Eight honorary degrees, including from Oxford and Cambridge.
- Dairy maid.
Honours and awards
- Fellow of the Royal Society (1985)
- Defence Medal from the British government for her work on the Enigma decryption project
- CBE for her services to systematics (1982)
- DBE for services to nature conservation and biochemical research (2000)
- First woman to serve on the National Trust’s Committee for Conservation
- First woman to become a Trustee of the Natural History Museum (1967-1975)
- First (and only) woman President of the Royal Entomological Society (1993-1994) [allowing women to the Verrall Supper for the very first time, an annual event that I thoroughly enjoy!]
- President of the Society for the Study of Insects
- Vice-President of Fauna and Flora International
- Committee member the Zoological Society of London
- Committee member the Marine Biological Association
- Visiting Professor of Biology at the Royal Free Hospital
- Strong supporter of many County Wildlife Trusts (involved in campaigning, advising, and fundraising)
- One of the first interventionists in conservation (recognising the role of disturbance in the maintenance of biodiversity in the UK countryside) and argued strongly for increased floral diversity in the countryside
- Arranged for road verges to be planted with wild flowers
- Founded the Schizophrenia Research fund (1962)
- Aided refugee Jewish scientists during and after the war, and worked with organisations to help Jewish children escape from Germany and Austria
- Lobbied for the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales
Selected publications (of over 300 journal articles and 10 books)
- Hopkins, G.H.E, Rothschild, M., Mardon D.K. (1953-1981) An Illustrated catalogue of the Rothschild collection of fleas (Siphonaptera) in the British Museum (Natural History) Vol I-VI. [Vols I-V by Hopkins and Rothschild]
- Rothschild, M. & Clay, T. (1952) Fleas, flukes and cuckoos: A Study of Bird Parasites, New Naturalist Series, Collins
- Rothschild, M. & Ford, B. (1964) Breeding of the Rabbit Flea (Spilopsyllus cuniculi (Dale)) controlled by the Reproductive Hormones of the Host, Nature 201: 103-104
- Aplin, R.T., Benn, M.H. & Rothschild, M. (1968) Poisonous Alkaloids in the Body Tissues of the Cinnabar Moth (Callimorpha jacobaeae L.), Nature 219: 747 – 748
So there you have it: the CV of one of the most successful and inspirational female entomologists in history, and my role model. To any young women who feel they’re lacking a role model in science, just broaden your search a little: there are thousands of inspirational women that deserve to be remembered.
If you’re interested in how public policy can be used to encourage and retain women in science, have a look at my overview of the subject on figshare. If you’d like to learn more about Miriam Rothschild, check out the following resources, which were used to compile this post:
- The Rothschild Foster Human Rights Trust
- van Emden, H.F. & Gurdon, J. (2006) Dame Miriam Louisa Rothschild. 5 August 1908 — 20 January 2005: Elected FRS 1985, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 52: 315-330
- The Guardian Obituary