Marjory Stephenson (1903)

Posted by Berkhamsted Admin on 17 Nov 2023

Modified by Berkhamsted Admin on 17 Nov 2023

Marjory Stephenson

Marjory Stephenson attended Berkhamsted School for Girls from the age of 11. Here, unlike many girls' schools at the time, she was able to study science. In 1903, Stephenson went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences. At the time, Cambridge University still had many restrictive policies towards women. Stephenson was not allowed to enter university libraries or laboratories, and was forced to use facilities reserved only for her female-only college. She was also not allowed to be awarded a degree for her work, and had to be chaperoned when attending any lecture outside of the college. 

After finishing her studies, Stephenson realised it would be too expensive to study medicine and started teaching domestic science. When the First World War broke out, Stephenson voluntereed with the Red Cross, serving in both France and Greece. Despite being awarded an MBE for her wartime work, Stephenson became an ardent pacifist on her return after the horrors she had witnessed in frontline hospitals. 

Stephenson returned to Cambridge to undertake research after the war. She joined a biochemistry reserach group under Frederick Gowland Hopkins, and focused on bacteria and their metabolism. In 1928, Stephenson was the first person to isolate an enzyme from a bacterial cell and much of her research is still used in modern biochemistry. During her time as a researcher, Stephenson contributed to over 20 different papers, and her book Bacterial Metabolism ran to three editions and has been widely used amongst biochemists. 

In spite of the great success of her work, Stephenson still faced innumerable barriers to her career. Indeed, even when she was awarded a prestigious ScD degree by the University, Stephenson was banned from collecting the degree as it was only allowed to be a titular honour for women. She was also not awarded a position at the university until 1947 at the age of 62, forcing her to rely on funding from elsewhere. 

In 1945, the Royal Society voted to accept women as Felllows, and Stephenson was one of the first two women to be accepted.

In 2017, a new Girls' House was created at Berkhamsted School and was named Stephenson in recognition of her pioneering work in the face of many obstacles.  

More information about the life and career of Marjory Stephenson can be found on the Royal Society of Chemistry website.


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