Sarah Martha Baker

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Sarah Martha Baker
Born4 June 1887
DiedMay 1917
Alma materUniversity College London
Scientific career
Fieldsbotany and ecology

Sarah Martha Baker D.Sc. F.L.S. (1887–1917) was an English botanist and ecologist who is remembered for her studies of brown seaweeds and zonation patterns on the seashore.

Bladderwrack, or Fucus vesiculosus, was one of the seaweeds Baker studied.

Early life[edit]

Born in London on 4 June 1887, she was the daughter of Martha Braithwaite Baker and George Samuel Baker and grew up in a Quaker family with two younger brothers, George and Bevan. As well as their main London home the family had a country house at Mersea Island where Baker first took an interest in seaweed.[1] She is said to have been interested in plants and flowers from an early age. Another interest was art and she studied briefly at the Slade School of Art before moving into science. This art training resulted in her producing scientific illustrations of high quality.[1]

Education and career[edit]

Baker began studying at University College London in 1906, where one of her teachers was the chemist Sir William Ramsay,[2] and received a Bachelor of Science degree with first class honours in 1909. After a short time in Munich in 1910, she returned to research in botanical chemistry in London. She was generally described as energetic and very hard-working.[1][2]

In 1912 she was chosen for the Quain Studentship in Botany accompanied by a lectureship at University College. This placed her in an enlightened environment by the standards of the early 20th century. Not only had University College been the first academic institution in the UK to admit female students, but from 1890 its Department of Botany under Professor F.W.Oliver was quite progressive. It granted several doctorates in botany to women, employed a reasonable number of female staff and gave the prestigious Quain award to women as often as to men.[3] In 1913 Baker received her doctorate for work on the effect of formaldehyde on living plants, and in 1914 was elected a fellow of the Linnaean Society. In 1916 she was elected to the Council of the British Ecological Society.


Whitecliff Bay, near Bembridge, was one location for Baker's zonation research.

Baker belonged to a pioneering era in ecology[4] when researchers began to use experimentation to take ecology beyond being merely descriptive.[5] She was not the only one to think the shore provided good opportunities for ecological study.[6] Baker's work on seaweed zoning explored the tendency for different types to thrive at different distances from the high tide mark. She decided to test whether "differential tolerance to desiccation stress was what determines zonation in marine algae".[5] She undertook the laborious work of measuring distances on the shore, collecting specimens, putting them in numerous jars and "var[ying] their exposure to drying".[5] Her conclusions suggested that competition between the various Fucaceae was important. This idea went out of fashion for some time but is now accepted as part of the explanation for zonation.[7] One writer has even called her "prophetic".[8] When she began to look at the effects of formaldehyde on living plants her experimental methods became more complex and sophisticated.[5] She went on studying photosynthesis and had intended to do more in that field had she not died young.[1]


Alongside her scientific work she did voluntary work for the Society of Friends (Quakers)[9] and is credited with an inspirational quotation used on the ‘Botanists’ panel of a Quaker tapestry[10] which comes from an obituary report of her Sunday school students’ memories of her.[9] When the First World War began she joined University College's Voluntary Aid Detachment.[2]

End of life[edit]

She died on 29 May 1917 just before reaching her 30th birthday. The Times claimed that "her death was due to overwork".[2] A Sarah M. Baker Memorial Prize was established at University College London in 1919[11] and is still awarded today.

Published articles[edit]

The standard author abbreviation S.M.Baker is used to indicate this person as the author when citing a botanical name.[12]


On Sarah Baker's mother's Braithwaite side of the family, there was a strong tradition of active Quaker involvement and ministry including her grandmother, grandfather and aunt. Her Canadian-born father and several relatives were involved in engineering and manufacturing.


  1. ^ a b c d "In Memoriam: Sarah Martha Baker". Journal of Ecology. 5 (3/4): 222–223. 1917. JSTOR 2255664.
  2. ^ a b c d Miss Sarah Martha Baker D.Sc., in The Times, 30 May 1917
  3. ^ Discussing the period 1890-1927, in Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945, Harvard UP 2009, p9
  4. ^ Michael Kaiser, Marine Ecology: Processes, Systems, and Impacts, OUP 2011, p179
  5. ^ a b c d Michael H. Graham, Joan Parker, Paul K. Dayton, The Essential Naturalist: Timeless Readings in Natural History, University of Chicago, 2011, p299
  6. ^ D.Raffaelli, S.Hawkins, Intertidal Ecology, Springer 2012
  7. ^ U.Sommer, B.Worm, Competition and Coexistence, Springer 2012
  8. ^ D.Raffaelli, S.Hawkins, Intertidal Ecology, Springer 2012, quoting and agreeing with Connell (1972)
  9. ^ a b Annual Monitor for 1918 obituary of members of the Society of Friends...,Gloucester, 1917
  10. ^ Quaker tapestry botanists panel
  11. ^ University College London, Calendar 1986-7 p245
  12. ^ IPNI.  S.M.Baker.