Women in physiology

The Physiological Society was founded in 1876 and women were engaged in physiological research from its earliest years.

The very first volume of The Journal of Physiology (1878/9) contained publications by two American women, Harriet Bills and Emily Nunn.

Emily Nunn’s paper in Volume 1 of The Journal of Physiology


The work of Marion Greenwood, and of Julia Brinck, was subsequently presented by male members at Society meetings in the 1880s.

In 1896, Florence Buchanan attended a meeting – the first woman known to have done so – and some years later she was to become the first female member of The Physiological Society. A zoology graduate, her research career started with investigations into marine worms, and respiration in crustaceans.

Illustrations from papers by Florence Buchanan in 1890 and 1893 (reproduced with permission)


From 1896 onwards, she assisted John Burdon Sanderson, a founder member of The Society, in his work on muscle physiology. After he died in 1905, she conducted research on the effect of exercise on heart rate. She died herself in 1931. Her grave is in Wolvercote Cemetery, next to that of Sanderson and his wife.

The graves of Florence Buchanan (left) and John Burdon Sanderson


The founding rules of The Physiological Society did not preclude women from admission as ordinary members. Even so, Buchanan’s membership was not proposed by John Scott Haldane until 1912. Signatures in the Candidates Book at the time show she attracted significant support and at The Society’s Annual General Meeting in January 1913, Haldane proposed a motion that: “it is desirable that women should be regarded as eligible for membership of The Society”.

Haldane’s motion


Candidates Book entry for Florence Buchanan


This was put to a postal vote by the membership a year later. The results, recorded in June 1914 were as follows: 94 members voted to admit women on the same terms as men, 36 to admit them as Associate Members and 31 voted to leave the rules unchanged.

The first six women members, elected on 6 July 1915, were Florence Buchanan, Ruth F Skelton, Winifred C Cullis, Enid M Tribe, Constance Leetham Terry, and S C M Sowton. They worked in a wide variety of research areas, including the physiology of heart, lungs, gut, nerve and muscle, urine production, and fatigue.

Of these six members, Winifred Cullis achieved the greatest renown and lectured all over the world. She was an energetic advocate for the role of science in healthy living, the value of education in emancipating both sexes, and for international goodwill. She was the first woman to serve on The Physiological Society’s Committee and the first to preside at a meeting of The Society in 1920. She was also the first woman Professor in a British medical school and Head of the Department of Physiology at the School of Medicine for Women.

Winifred Cullis


Since 1915, women have sat on Society Committees, the editorial boards of its journals and been elected Honorary Members. In 2018 Bridget Lumb was elected the first female President of The Society.

Bridget Lumb


Lumb’s research addresses how the brainstem coordinates our behaviour and physiological responses in different situations, such as fever, fear, anxiety, stress-related disorders and chronic pain. A member of The Society since 1990, she has sat on several of the Society’s committees and was the first female member of the Executive Committee.

Speaking in 2013, she said: “I discovered a passion for science and the wonder of working at its cutting edge when I embarked on my undergraduate research project. Imagine the excitement of being able to ask, and hopefully answer, questions for the first time.”

Further reading:

  • Bindman L, Brading A, Tansey T (1993). Women physiologists. Portland Press, London.
  • Wray S, Tansey T, eds (2015). Women physiologists: centenary celebrations and beyond. The Physiological Society, London.
  • Buchanan F (1894). A polypoid with branchiae (Eupolyodontes cornishii). Quarterly Journal of Microscopial Science, New Series 35, 433-50.
  • Obituary (1956). Winifred Cullis. Br Med J Nov 24, 2(5003),1242.

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