Curriculum Vitae: Miriam Rothschild

Miriam Rothschild (picture from BBC.co.uk)

Miriam Rothschild (picture from BBC.co.uk)

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

Motto
Naturalists are born, not made

First pet
Quail

Shoe of choice
White Wellington boots (even wore wellingtons to Buckingham Palace)

Insect collection
Began collecting at the age of 4

Education
Tutored in natural history by father and uncle. No formal education.

Research interests
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.

Patents
None, but claims to have invented the car seatbelt.

Qualifications

  • 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)

Glass-ceiling-smashing appointments

  • 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!]

Other appointments

  • 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

Conservation activities

  • 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

Other activities

  • 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:

I strongly recommend you listen to Miriam’s episode of Desert Island Discs and watch her addition to Seven Wonders of the World. She’s incredibly charismatic and engaging.

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7 responses to “Curriculum Vitae: Miriam Rothschild

    • You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more interesting and inspiring to talk about than Miriam Rothschild. I hope the slides or video of the presentation become available.

  1. Terrible that this family dynasty is so involved in the ruthless degradation and exploitation of people and planet. She may well have been very ashamed of them, and perhaps ostracized?

  2. Pingback: International Women’s Day 2016: Perspectives from Adriana De Palma | The Applied Ecologist's blog·

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