Women in Science series // Irene Manton

Features, Features

I have a paper due tomorrow and - of course - it’s not quite finished. After weeks of airy dreaminess believing the deadline to be ages away, it has suddenly loomed out of the darkness and hit me in the face.

I wasn’t always this disorganized. At the beginning when I was studying in Brotherton, the rounded walls and decadent ceiling gave off a particularly academic feel and I felt confident. Yet now I know my fate is sealed and if I want this done properly, my only option is this: The 24 Hour Computer Cluster. Just typing it I can feel my stomach curl up in fear. The funny smell, the neon lights, the weird, tense silence created by many stressed students gathering in one place. Yet, if given a preference of where to spend the early hours of my morning, my cluster of choice would probably be Irene Manton North.

That makes my first encounter with the scientist Irene Manton quite negative, but despite having her name attached to a student’s nightmare, I have learnt that she was actually a pretty amazing botanist and cytologist.

Manton was born in 1904 in Kensington and from an early age was interested in biology, taking regular trips to the Natural History Museum during her school years. She then moved to Cambridge University for her undergraduate degree, studying botany, zoology and physics. She never spoke well of her time at Cambridge and, without wanting to sound too much like a broken record, this was in part due to Cambridge’s reluctance at that time to integrate women into academic life. However, her passion for biology was not diminished and for a year she worked in Sweden, becoming fluent in the language, before moving to Manchester to study and demonstrate in the botany department. It was whilst at Manchester that Manton was told that “microscopical observations should always be recorded by photography, never by drawings” as it was thought that drawings were too subjective. This piece of advice stayed with her throughout her life and she went on to create some of the most beautiful scientific photographs of the twentieth Century.

In Manchester she was at the forefront of scientific research, using a light microscope to document the movement of chromosomes during cell division. When she moved to Leeds she made sure to procure an electron microscope as soon as possible, ensuring that her department at Leeds was the first botany department in the UK to use one. With both the light microscope and the electron microscope, her research was constrained only by time.

Manton had a keen interest in art for its own sake and within her teaching there was an underlying artistic thread. During lectures she used images of abstract paintings to inspire those attending of the “other ways of looking at nature”. She was also a collector of Chinese and Modern paintings, purchasing exactly what she liked rather than what she thought she should like. This included paintings by Klee, Miró and Braque, all of which she has since bequeathed to the University of Leeds. She fused her passion of art with science and photographed plant cells in great detail, working by the motto that one must “photograph and print before you look and examine afterwards”. These photographs allowed her to document the spatial organisation of organelles within the cell and she also devised a method to display chromosomes clearly, which allowed them to be counted to define different fern species. This and other achievements by Manton within evolutionary biology were recognised by the Linnean Society of London and she became the first female President between the years of 1973 and 1976.

Not only are her scientific photographs technically brilliant but they also elegantly display the skill and dedication involved in her research. It was well-known within the department at Leeds that her passion for research meant that she worked hard and long hours; “everyday into the small hours, all weekend and all holiday period”. With this in mind it seems apt that a building housing two 24 hour computer clusters is named in her honour. With some knowledge of this inspirational woman, I think I’ll start viewing these clusters as an opportunity to succeed, rather than a hardship I have to bear.

Currently, collections of Manton’s work remain uncatalogued in the hope that it will soon be easier for researchers to access. In the mean time the Leeds University Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine is doing what it can to research

Read the previous article in the series on Lise Meitner here.

Emma Steer

image: Mettenius on wikicommons. Used under a Creative Commons licence.


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