Arber | Agnes | 1879-1960 | nee Robertson | researcher in plant anatomy, Newnham College Cambridge

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Agnes Arber (1879-1960) (née Robertson) was a botanist who sought to blur the distinctions between science and philosophy. She attended University College, London, from which she graduated with a first class degree in 1899. In 1901-1902, she achieved a first in both parts of the natural sciences tripos at the University of Cambridge. Until 1909, she investigated comparative plant anatomy at UCL. In 1909, she married Edward Alexander Newell Arber (1870-1918), university demonstrator in palaeobotany at the University of Cambridge. After their marriage, Agnes Arber began to work alone. During her studies, she was heavily influenced by her friend and teacher Ethel Sargant (1863-1918).

Her main area of study in the early part of her career was the structure and morphology of monocotyledonous plants. She was interested in the history and philosophy of her science, and her first and most famous book, Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution deals with the history of botany. She wrote 84 scientific papers and a number of other books, split between scientific - in the earlier part of her career - and more philosophical works - in the later part. She also wrote about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749-1832) botanical work.

Her health deteriorated during the Second World War, and after 1942, she ceased to experiment and publish original scientific material. This period coincides with her change of focus from scientific or historical study to philosophy and - later - the mysticism of her final book, The Manifold and the One.

Agnes Arber was the first woman botanist fellow of the Royal Society.


Her husband, EAN Arber (1870-1918) was a palaeobotanist.

Other Significant Information

Notable Publications:

Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution ( 1912)

Water Plants: A Study of Aquati Angiosperms ( 1920)

Monocotyledons: A Morphological Study ( 1925)

The Graminae: A Study of Cereal, Bamboo and Grass ( 1934)

Tha Natural Philosophy of Plant Form ( 1950)

The Mind and the Eye, a Study of the Biologist's Standpoint ( 1954)

The Manifold and the One ( 1957)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1899: Awarded Batchelor of Science (BSc (hons)), University College, London

1901-1902: Awarded first class part i and ii, natural sciences tripos, Newnham College, Cambridge

1903-1908: Appointed Quain Student in Biology

1908: Appointed lecturer, University College, London

1946: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1948: Awarded Linnean Medal, Linnean Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

, Arber, Agnes (1879 - 1960) British botanist , (, The Penguin Biographical Dictionary of Women, © Market House Books Ltd )1968

Hauke, Richard L, Agnes Arber: Morphology to Metaphysics and Mysticism, (

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol I, (New York , Scribner's, 1970)

Williams, ET and Palmer, Helen M , Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960, ( Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971)