Muriel Wheldale Onslow

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Muriel Wheldale Onslow
Muriel Wheldale Onslow.jpg
Born(1880-03-31)31 March 1880
Died19 May 1932(1932-05-19) (aged 52)
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
Scientific career
FieldsBiochemical genetics

Muriel Wheldale Onslow (31 March 1880 – 19 May 1932) was a British biochemist, born in Birmingham, England. She was married to biochemist Victor Alexander Herbert Huia Onslow, second son of the 4th Earl of Onslow. She studied the inheritance of flower color in the common snapdragon further contributing in the concern of biochemistry pigment molecules in plants such as anthocyanins. She attended the King Edward VI High School in Birmingham and then matriculated at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1900. At Cambridge she majored in botany. She received no degree from Cambridge, despite taking First Class Honors in both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos, because Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948.[1] Onslow later worked alongside Bateson's genetic group in Cambridge, providing expertise in biochemical genetics and investigating the inheritance of petal color in Antirrhinum (snapdragons).[2] She was one of the first women appointed as a lecturer at Cambridge, after moving to the Biochemistry department. A play was written about her and three other female biochemists.

Early life and career[edit]

She was the only child of John Wheldale who was a barrister. She attended King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, which was well known amongst girls schools for its scientific teachings. In 1900, she entered Newnham College, Cambridge and achieved a First Class result in Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos.[3]

In 1903, she joined William Bateson's genetics group at Cambridge where she began her study focusing on the interaction of factors and of the inheritance of petal color in Antirrhinum (snapdragons). William Bateson was the English biologist who was the first person to use the term genetics to describe the study of heredity, and the chief populariser of the ideas of Gregor Mendel following their rediscovery in 1900. Bateson and Onslow, alongside a research group mainly made up of Newnham College graduates, carried out a series of breeding experiments in various plant and animal species between 1903 and 1910.[4]

By 1906 Wheldale had enough data to formulate a rudimentary factorial analysis on snapdragon inheritance. She became and assistant lecturer in her own college from 1906-08. In 1907, Wheldale identified and, with the help of Bateson, termed the phenomenon of dominant-like relationship between different pairs of nonallelomorphic factors as epistasis. Wheldale's study of genetics on flower coloration ultimately gained her the most recognition, with the 1907 publication of a full factorial analysis of flower color inheritance in snapdragons and the four subsequent papers she published from 1909 to 1910. This work culminated in the 1916 publication of her first book, The Anthocyanin Pigments of Plants.[5]

Wheldale held a studentship at the John Innes Horticultural Institution from 1911 to 1914 where, in addition to her laboratory work, she was prized as the Institution’s leading botanical artist. During this time in 1913 she became one of the first three women to be elected to the Biochemical Club (later to be known as the Biochemical Society) after the club's initial exclusion of women in 1911.[6]

She joined the biochemistry lab of Frederick Gowland Hopkins in 1914, where she pursued the biochemical aspects of petal colour, whose genetics she had elucidated during her work with Bateson. In combining genetics and biochemistry she became one of the first biochemical geneticists and paved the way for the later successes of such seminal investigators as Edward Tatum and George Beadle.

In 1919 she married biochemist Victor Alexander Herbert Huia Onslow, second son of the 4th Earl of Onslow. He had recently entered the field of chemical genetics, and their work was closely associated. Victor Onslow was paraplegic and died in 1922. In her memoir for her husband she wrote that he was a man of amazing courage and mental vitality enabling him to work gain a career in biochemicals through tough times. His work will always be an inspiration to those who witnessed it.

In 1926 she was one of the first women appointed as a lecturer at Cambridge, as a lecturer in plant biochemistry in the biochemistry department. Amongst her followers was Rose Scott-Moncrieff who went on to identify the first crystalline form of primulin in about 1930. This was the first crystalline anthocyanin pigment ever identified. Onslow and Scott-Moncrieff have been credited with founding biochemical genetics, although Scott-Moncrieff is thought to have the stronger claim.[7]

Muriel Onslow died on 19 May 1932.

In 2010 the Royal Institution of Great Britain staged a play, entitled Blooming Snapdragons, about four early-20th-century women biochemists, one of whom was Muriel Onslow.

She was addicted to travel and took a particular interest in the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe

Books by Muriel Onslow[edit]

  • The Anthocyanin Pigments of Plants, 1916, revised in 1925
  • Practical Plant Biochemistry, 1920
  • Principles of Plant Biochemistry, Volume 1, 1931


  1. ^ At Last a Degree of Honour for 900 Cambridge Women, Suzanna Chambers, 30 May 1998, The Independent, Retrieved July 2016
  2. ^ Wheldale, M. (1914-10-01). "Our present knowledge of the chemistry of the Mendelian factors for flower-colour". Journal of Genetics. 4 (2): 109. doi:10.1007/BF02981834. ISSN 0022-1333.
  3. ^ College., Newnham. Newnham College register 1871-1950. 1924-1950. OCLC 271061932.
  4. ^ Richmond, Marsha L. (November 2007). "Opportunities for women in early genetics". Nature Reviews Genetics. 8 (11): 897–902. doi:10.1038/nrg2200. ISSN 1471-0056.
  5. ^ Wheldale, Muriel (1916). The Anthocyanin Pigments of Plants. University Press, Cambridge.
  6. ^ Trevor Walworth Goodwin (1987). History of the Biochemical Society : 1911-1986. The Biochemical Society. ISBN 0904498212. OCLC 716632236.
  7. ^ Rose Scott-Moncrieff and the dawn of (Bio) Chemical Genetics, Cathie Martin, April 2016, Biochemical classics,, Retrieved 5 July 2016

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