Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Irene Manton FRS

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging, where people write posts about women scientists who’ve inspired them. This is my fifth ALD post and it marks a departure in theme for me: all of my previous posts have been about computer scientists, and about people I’ve met. To start with I blogged about Sue Black, then Julie Greensmith, then Sarah Winmill, and last year ACS ladies, Aber Comp Sci’s group for women students. This year I’ve chosen to blog about a botanist who I’ve never met. (Indeed, I haven’t even read any of her original papers…). But I think that she’s a good ALD topic, so here I go…

The Irene Manton Building. Yes it’s big. Photo credit Neil Messenger, reproduced with permission.

Whilst I was working and studying in Leeds in the late 1990s, a building got renamed The Irene Manton Building. Actually, as a computer science person, the reason I noticed it was because that was where one of the main 24h computer clusters was located. There were a few plaques, so I knew she was a biologist (or rather, a botanist) of note.

She was born in 1904 and died in 1988, and both her and her sister Sidnie were fellows of the Royal Society. She worked in botany, particularly looking at ferns and algae, but one of the reasons I’m interested in her now is that she pioneered imaging approaches to plant biology. As a computer vision researcher, I’m doing more and more work with plant images. From the perspective of computer science they’re a really interesting problem. So I find it fascinating that Manton was one of the first to try a lot of the techniques people still use today. In particular, she used electron microscopy to investigate plants at the cellular level. Applying new technology to look at plants, discovering hitherto unknown aspects of their structure and biology, she made huge advances in cytology and in genetics.

According to an obituary published in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, (link), “Manton was never one to bear fools with any degree of pleasure and her categorisation of fools was both catholic and varied“. But many also commented on her generosity – for example, according to The Reporter (link) “she asked somebody who worked in her department where he was going on holiday that year. He said he couldn’t afford to go away and the next day she presented him with tickets to France for his whole family“. Another favourite Manton anecdote I have heard (but can’t find any backup for online, so it might be hearsay) is that some of her colleagues were a little concerned that she’d got scruffy, so persuaded her to go shopping. In Marks and Spencer. Once there she found a dress which was OK for her and to the dismay of her shopping colleagues, then bought 7 identical frocks.

If you want to find out more about Manton, I’d recommend the Biographical memoir linked above, and also a few posts from the HPS Museum Blog at Leeds, specifically Irene Manton and representations of the Cell, and Irene Manton, Hidden treasures in the University of Leeds Library.

1 Comment

  1. [True] anecdotes about Manton are legion: I never knew her but shared rooms with her often (even though she was long retired when I was in Leeds).
    I once mentioned to a successor Professor of hers, one of her disciples, that the University was a bit shoddy in allowing a mere computer cluster to be named after someone that influential. He said “Dont worry, Roger, she’s got a crater on Venus named after her already”.

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