Gulielma Lister: the female botanist who became the queen of slime moulds

At a time when scientific discovery was seen primarily as a male pursuit, Gulielma Lister became the world’s leading expert on the otherworldly creatures nicknamed “living creepies”, which are today at the forefront of artificial intelligence technologies. Dr Patricia Fara reveals how the pioneering scientist made her name...

Gulielma Lister became the world's leading expert on slime moulds (Illustration by Rachel Dickins)

Being dubbed “the queen of slime moulds” might seem a dubious accolade, but Gulielma Lister (1860–1949) was the world expert on these extraordinary organisms that are now at the cutting edge of research into artificial intelligence. Their trial-and-error decision-making processes are informing solutions for networking problems, for example.

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Not animals, plants nor fungi, slime moulds can creep around to explore their neighbourhood and track down food. One of them is the star attraction at a Paris zoo, where it is nicknamed le blob after the American horror movie. (In a quirk of serendipity, Alfred Hitchcock, the director of numerous other famous horror films, lived for many years in the same road as Lister.)

We treat the soil beneath our feet as dirt, yet in a single teaspoon, there are more micro-organisms than all the people on earth. However tiny, they are crucial for maintaining a healthy planet – it is just as important to preserve them as it is to save the giant panda. Lister was an early environmentalist who dedicated her career to documenting hundreds of different slime moulds, as well as recording the rate at which once-familiar plants were disappearing from her native Essex as a result of rapid urbanisation and environmental pollution.

Quietly refusing to be deterred by the obstacles stacked up against women, this enterprising scientist initially worked with her father, Arthur, but after his death she became an international authority in her own right. She participated in an extended network of biologists stationed around the world, many of them women who were marginalised at the time and have now been forgotten.

Among her most prized possessions was a gift of two enamelled vases presented by a fellow enthusiast, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, to express his gratitude for naming a specimen after him.

Unorthodox globetrotter

For almost 90 years, Lister lived where she had been born, in the house in Leytonstone (now in east London) bought by her parents in 1857, a year after the railway station opened. Apart from a year at Bedford College, she was educated at home. Her mother, Susanna, was an artist who taught her to become an accomplished scientific illustrator.

Her father commuted into London for his day job as a wine merchant, but he also constructed a scientific laboratory inside their comfortable suburban home where he could indulge his true passion. There, father and daughter worked together on slime moulds, or “his living creepies” as Arthur called them.

However close she remained to her roots, Gulielma Lister was definitely not a stereotypical stay-at-home spinster. Succeeding in botany entailed being a hardy traveller. In a typically casual aside, she remarked: “I remember seeing in Switzerland, high on the Alps, the white sporangia of that hardy species Diderma niveum clustered on the slender stalk of a blue Soldanella flower which had just pierced through the snow.”

Gulielma Lister was definitely not a stereotypical stay-at-home spinster. Succeeding in botany entailed being a hardy traveller

Only 16 when she first went to Europe with her family, throughout her life she regularly visited museum curators on the continent, travelling to Paris, Strasbourg, Christiana and Leyden. She even accompanied her uncle Joseph – the surgeon famous for revolutionising surgery with antisepsis – on a trip to Canada and the West Indies.

She had adored him since childhood, when he behaved “like a boy among us at the big family gatherings, throwing himself with whole-hearted enjoyment into all the games, however childish, that we played”.

Joseph later became Lord Lister of Lyme Regis, where he spent the summers with Gulielma, other relatives and friends in a large house perched high up on the cliffs. Famous for its fossils and blessed with abundant wildlife, Lyme Regis was a paradise for Victorian naturalists. Gulielma spent days on end walking the headlands, watching birds and analysing geological features. Inseparable from her pocket telescope, she was much respected by the local residents (although one did cattily describe her as “a horsey sort of man”).

A portrait of the surgeon and founder of antiseptic medicine, Joseph Lister
Joseph Lister, c1900, uncle to Gulielma and trailblazing surgeon who pioneered antiseptic medicine. Gulielma travelled with him to Canada and West Indies and visited him at Lyme Regis every summer, where she studied local fauna and flora (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Rather than indulging in relaxed holidays, the family worked hard at their shared fascination with the living world, even inventing a new expression to describe their constant activity: “ruggling on”.

Arthur set up a second laboratory packed with equipment for them to study mosses, fungi, lichens and, of course, slime moulds. High Cliff House resembled a small scientific colony, whose regular visitors included eminent biologists such as Dukinfield Henry Scott.

Like Gulielma, Scott’s wife Henderina had been encouraged into science by her father, and she too is a forgotten trailblazer. She pioneered the art of time-lapse photography, a technique now essential in work revealing the puzzle-solving abilities of slow-moving slime moulds. As she put it: “After a warm rain we often say that we can almost see our plants growing; by means of this adaptation of the cinematograph we literally can.”

Runs in the family

If women could choose when to be born, many would pick tomorrow – but in the 19th century, belonging to a devout Quaker family was the next best option. Addressing each other as “thee” and “thou”, the Listers enabled their intelligent daughters to enjoy far more opportunities than other affluent girls.

“Quaker science” sounds like an oxymoron. Surely science is science, whatever your religion? But there are many ways of knowing the world, and many ways of exploring it. Rejecting what they perceived as the sterile objectivity of maths and physics, Quakers believed that it was more important to appreciate the wonder and diversity of God’s creation. Their scholarly standards were as high as those in the universities from which they were long banned due to their faith, but their methods and goals were different.

Gulielma’s grandfather and father were both fellows of the Royal Society, and both famous for using high-powered microscopes that made it possible to study minute beings such as slime moulds. Although women were excluded until 1945, other scientific organisations were forced into being more broad-minded. After years of bitter argument and procrastination, in 1905 the Linnean Society eventually admitted 25 women – and Gulielma was among them.

Determined to justify their decision, she participated energetically, serving on the council and even being elected vice-president in 1929. As a ground-breaking role model, she was much admired and emulated by younger women, one of whom recalled that she “removed her hat in deference to the sexless character of a fellow. It was an unusual thing then for a lady to remove her hat, but we all took our cue from Miss Lister and did the same.”

For many years, Lister was effectively a senior but unsalaried curator at the Natural History Museum and Kew Gardens

Independently wealthy, Lister could afford to pursue a scientific career, and for many years she was effectively a senior but unsalaried curator at the Natural History Museum and Kew Gardens. Other women were less fortunate.

Her best friend, Annie Lorrain Smith, endured great hardship despite being an international authority on fungi and lichens. Her book remained the standard reference work for decades, yet as Lister remarked angrily in her friend’s obituary, she was marginalised as an underpaid “unofficial worker” throughout her long career at the museum.

For specialists around the world, Arthur Lister’s comprehensive study of slime moulds provided the first systematic guide. But behind the scenes, he had relied on his invisible research assistant, the woman who had prepared many of the drawings and helped him to catalogue the specimens they worked on together.

After he died, Gulielma stepped out of the shadows and published more detailed editions, embellishing them with beautifully coloured plates that she paid for or produced herself. This time, her name appeared on the title page as well.

Despite lacking a brain, le blob and its relatives can make decisions, navigate mazes and even remember where they found their last meal; they are the inspiration behind computer programs that search outer space and design transport systems. Gulielma Lister’s slime moulds are forcing scientists to rethink what it means to think.

Dr Patricia Fara is a science historian at the University of Cambridge and a former president of the British Society for the History of Science. Her books include A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (OUP, 2018)

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This article was first published in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine