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In this section:     Dr Ellen Delf-Smith, Botany Lecturer, Westfield College  

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Ellen Delf-Smith, 1912.
Ellen Delf-Smith, 1912.
Courtesy of Queen Mary, University of London Archives.

Ellen Delf-Smith (1883-1980) was appointed Lecturer in Botany at Westfield College in 1906, as part of the developments at Westfield College to increase its profile and offer degree-level science teaching.

Delf-Smith was born in Essex and was educated at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich. She went on to attend Girton College, Cambridge, where she earned a first in the natural sciences tripos. She won several scholarships and prizes, and was committed to botanical research from early in her academic career.

In 1906, she was offered the opportunity to teach botany at Westfield College. Delf-Smith accepted this offer, and became responsible for establishing the Botany department and its laboratories in attic rooms at the College.

She was faced with rather poor conditions when she began work at Westfield, however she did succeed in establishing a successful department. The University of London approved the laboratories for teaching BSc students in 1910, and approved the preparation of students for degrees in botany in 1915.

One of the first Botany graduates from Westfield was also the first Chinese graduate from the University of London, Pao Swen Tseng. International links were made through the development of botany at Westfield, including the establishment of sister women's colleges in India and China.

Sketch of the attic laboratory. Photograph of the attic laboratory.
Here are a sketch and a photograph of the attic laboratory that Delf-Smith established.
Courtesy of Queen Mary, University of London Archives.

At Westfield, Delf-Smith's scientific training met with the strict religious beliefs of the College, which were upheld by the Mistress, Constance Maynard. Delf-Smith's memoirs tell of how she challenged the religious principles of the College, by refusing to attend Maynard's divinity lectures and teaching the theory of evolution despite disapproval from Maynard.

Ellen Delf-Smith, c1915.
Ellen Delf-Smith, c1915.
Courtesy of Queen Mary, University of London Archives.

A page from Delf-Smith's Research Notebook: Seaweeds.
From Delf-Smith's Research Notebook: Seaweeds.
Courtesy of Queen Mary, University of London Archives.

Percy Smith sketches his wife, niece and nephew, c1935.
Percy Smith sketches his wife, niece and nephew, c1935.
Courtesy of Queen Mary, University of London Archives.


Despite these ideological differences and the challenges of setting up a new department, Delf-Smith stayed at Westfield throughout her career, and became a Reader in 1921, and Head of Botany department in 1939. She retired in 1948. She was also President of the Westfield College Association from 1950-1955 and was appointed as an Honorary Fellow in 1955.

She was committed to the teaching of young women, and believed that the job of a teacher was to 'at least awaken the desire amongst students to follow some line of investigation for themselves'. She encouraged this in students through field work and she taught many students who went on to have scientific careers.

Throughout her career, Delf-Smith also carried on with her own research and field work, and published several papers. She was particularly interested the transpiration of plants, particularly in seaweeds. She carried out her work in London, Cambridge and elsewhere, including South Africa. In 1920, when she was doing research in South Africa , she collected several notebooks of specimens, which can be seen in the College Archives.

She was awarded the DSc degree by the University of London in 1912 for a thesis reflecting her original research, including her article on 'The biology of transpiration', for which she was awarded the Gamble prize from Girton College, Cambridge .

In 1928, she married the artist Percy John Smith. Though Delf-Smith was herself a scientist, she shared interests in drawing and gardening with her husband. Amongst Percy Smith's works are sketches of his wife, including one of her doing field work, which is held in the College Archives.

Delf-Smith was a member of several societies related to her teaching and research, including the Linnean Society, the South East London Botany Society, the Association of Women Science Teachers, and the Scottish Seaweed Organization. She died in 1980 after a long and successful career.

The College Archives hold a large number of Delf-Smith's papers, including photographs, memoirs, manuscripts and research notebooks.


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