Women in Physiology

Celebrating 100 years of Women’s Membership of The Physiological Society

On 23 January 1915, The Physiological Society formally decided to admit women as members. Although The Society, founded in 1876, had never explicitly excluded women, female members were not officially admitted until July 1915. To gain membership of The Society, an existing member first had to propose someone and signatures were added in support. The Committee then decided upon approval of the candidate, after which the members were formally elected during a Society Meeting.

The Physiological Society was founded in 1876 to promote physiology and support physiologists in the wake of the 1875 Royal Commission and resultant animal legislation. Members of The Society would discuss business over dinner; indeed one of the rules of The Society stated that ‘the meetings of the Society shall commence with dinner at six o’clock punctually’.

Dinner would be preceded by talks and, in 1884, Marion Greenwood published a communication, although there is no evidence that she attended the meeting herself. Whilst there was no explicit limitation by sex, the first record of a woman at a Society meeting was Florence Buchanan’s attendance in 1896, although she did not join the men for dinner.

In 1913, John Scott Haldane proposed that women should be admitted as members of The Society and, in the following year, a postal ballot of members showed that of 161 members that voted, 94 supported the motion.

In 1915, at the next AGM, the admission of women was ‘approved by a majority’ and the following was added to The Society rules:

‘Rule 36. Women shall be eligible for membership of The Society and have the same rights, duties and privileges as men.’

At the first chance, 6 months after this amendment, six women were elected. If they were in alphabetical order for election, Florence Buchanan would be the first female member (the others being Winifred C. Cullis, Ruth C. Skelton, Sarah C. M. Sowton, Constance Leetham Terry and Enid M. Tribe). Florence Buchanan would later become the first author to publish in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology, which became Experimental Physiology in 1990. Winifred Cullis also became the first woman on the Committee and the first to host a Society meeting; she was also the first woman to become Professor of Physiology and Head of Department. Women have continued to undertake careers in physiology since that amendment was made and in 2012, 264 new female members joined The Society. At the time this perspective went to press (July, 2013) there were 1173 female members which, as a percentage, was 36% of the total membership.


Florence Buchanan

Winifred C. Cullis

Ruth C. Skelton

Sarah C. M. Sowton

Constance Leetham Terry

Enid M. Tribe


Tansey, E M (1993) ”To dine with ladies smelling of dog”? A brief history of women and the Physiological Society. In Women Physiologists, eds L Bindman, A Brading & T Tansey, Portland Press, pp 3-17