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Oct. 20, 2002 The Many Sides of Agnes Arber
by Maura C. Flannery
St. John's University, NY

It seems particularly appropriate to discuss the career of Agnes Arber (1879-1960) in this newsletter, because it can be approached from the viewpoints of sociology, history, and philosophy. Arber, who was a noted British plant morphologist during the first half of the 20th century, was interested in the history of botany throughout her career. Her first book, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution (1912), was followed by an expanded edition in 1938; she also wrote numerous articles on such historical figures in botany as Nehemiah Grew (1906) and Guy de la Brosse (1913). Though all her books, including three on plant morphology, have some philosophical content, her interest in philosophy increased in her later years. When it became impossible to continue her morphological studies during World War II, she turned to a philosophical investigation of plant form. This she published as The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form in 1950. Four years later, The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint appeared. This is a philosophical investigation of the processes involved in biological inquiry.

While Arber herself did not explore the sociology of science, she has been the subject of work in this field. Kathryn Packer (1997) has looked at Arber's career from the viewpoint of her relationship to the scientific establishment of the time, and in her study of the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women at Cambridge University. M. Richmond (1997) touches upon Arber's role there. In addition, A.D. Boney (1995) chronicles the unsuccessful attempt to have Arber made president of Section K (Botany) for the 1921 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

A Sociological View

Arber developed an interest in botany while she was attending the North London Collegiate School for Girls, where education was taken more seriously than at many girls' schools and where the science training was exceptionally good. It was here that she met the botanist, Ethel Sargant, who made presentations to the school's science club. Sargant was a plant morphologist who had no institutional affiliation, but instead, did research in a laboratory in her home. She invited Arber to work with her during school vacations, and later, Arber spent a year doing research there. Both Sargant's research interests and her research style influenced Arber.

Arber studied at Newnham College of Cambridge University at a time when the University did not grant degrees to women. She then returned to the University College, London, where she had done her undergraduate work, and completed her doctorate in 1905. She taught there until 1909 when she moved to Cambridge after her marriage to the paleobotanist Edward Newell Arber (1870-1918). She had a laboratory at Balfour Lab from the time of her marriage to the Lab's closing in 1927. When Arber then asked Professor Seward, the Head of the Botany School, for use of the school's facilities, her request was denied. It was then that she converted the small back room in her home to a laboratory, borrowing equipment from Newnham College and scrupulously returning that equipment when she stopped doing bench research in the 1950s.

From the correspondence that Kathryn Packer has unearthed, it's obvious that working at home was not Arber's first choice, but from Arber's remarks in a talk she gave to women students at Cambridge's Girton College in 1926, it's clear this solitude was not something unattractive to her (Stearn, 1960). She explained that working in a large laboratory facility means that there are usually assistants available to help solve the technical problems that often arise in using or constructing equipment or in other aspects of research. While she recognized the advantages of this, she saw a benefit in the mental effort spent on dealing with these difficulties when working alone. She felt that it meant putting more brain work into technique and thus into the research as a whole. Arber also thought that in working alone, research tasks were less likely to become boring, and since the lone researcher has to handle all tasks, there is little fear that one can specialize in a particular task and lose the view of the research as a whole. From these remarks, it's obvious that Arber was able to put a positive spin on a change in her research situation that she was powerless to change.

Newell Arber died in 1918 when their daughter Muriel was just five years old. Arber managed to maintain their household at 52 Huntington Road in Cambridge until her death in 1960. She lived on a meager income and rented rather than owned this home. It was never modernized, and at the time of her death was one of the few homes in Cambridge that did not have electric service. So the conditions under which she worked were less than ideal, particularly because her laboratory room was too small to also serve as an office. For this, she used the front sitting room/dining room, writing at a big table, and this was also the room where Muriel played.


Despite these less than ideal working conditions, Arber made significant contributions to the field of plant morphology as is indicated by the fact that she was only the third woman (and the first woman botanist) elected to membership in the Royal Society of London (in 1946). She produced over 50 papers as well as three books on plant morphology. The first book was Water Plants: A Study of Aquatic Angiosperms (1920). In the preface, she gives Newell credit for suggesting the project. Early in the century, Cambridge was filled with waterways and the Cam had yet to be completely tamed, so there was an abundance of materials, freely available. Since most water plants are monocotyledons, the plants in which Arber specialized, this was a particularly appropriate choice.

Water Plants was followed in 1925 by Monocotyledons: a Morphological Study, which was a volume in the series, Cambridge Botanical Handbooks, as was Arber's last major morphological work, The Gramineae: A Study of Cereal, Bamboo, and Grass (1934). Ethel Sargant had originally been commissioned to write Monocotyledons, but when her health failed, she passed the project on to Arber. Both these books are very careful studies of their subjects and are full of carefully reasoned arguments. This is how Arber keeps the reader's interest. She doesn't just present information about plant form, she lays out the arguments for and against certain conclusions about that form. For example, she cannot discuss monocot leaf form without exploring what, if any, relationship it has to dicot leaf form. And again, the study of monocot seedling structure is presented in relation to what it can reveal about how the various families of monocots may be related to each other.

Arber has been criticized for her tendency to denigrate evolutionary questions, and she did have some rather odd ideas about evolution. In Water Plants, she presents evidence for the inheritance of acquired traits, though 25 years later in a piece on the history of analogy in science, she admits that such a process is unthinkable. She is definitely not happy with the theory of natural selection, which she sees as grossly inadequate to explain the diversity found in the plant world, and she explains her distaste most fully in Monocotyledons. She cites cases where there are many closely related species that differ from each other in traits that could not possibly be adaptive, such as subtle differences in leaf shape or petal form. Arber also argues that the available morphological evidence cannot explain how monocots and dicots are related to each other. It is impossible to decide which is the more ancient lineage, and so she opts for the idea of parallel evolution, that these two groups developed independently of each other. She sees parallelism as the way to explain many cases of similar structures arising in very different species: it is not that these species arose from a common ancestor but that these structures arose independently.

Many of Arber's views were controversial at the time they were written and are considered totally invalid today Still, these books continue to have value, not only because of the morphology laid out there, but for Arber's writing style, art, and philosophical and historical observations. In her writing, Arber managed to be both factual and interesting. Her wit was low-keyed and ironic; it came through subtly in her writing. For example in a discussion of bladderworts, she notes "that—in the present state of our ignorance—the attempt to fit so elusive a genus into the Procrustean bed of rigid morphology, is doomed to failure" (1920, p. 107). At another point, she writes that biologists trying to ferret out ancestral traits are often like treasure hunters looking for old family silver supposedly hidden in a mansion, some of whom are convinced it is in the attic, while others are equally convinced it is in the cellar.

Arber's artistic abilities were nurtured by her father, Henry Robertson, an artist who gave her lessons from an early age. She did all her own illustrations for her articles and books; each of the latter contains well over 100 illustrations. There are some portions of The Gramineae where there are less pages of text than of illustrations of cross sections through plant tissue. Because she relied so heavily on illustrations, she had to pack as much as possible into each of them, and pack she did. Some full-page illustrations present up to 20 individual plant parts, yet her artist's eye prevents such pages from seeming crowded and chaotic. There is always a careful attention to placement of the items—positioning that serves to be both clear and visually pleasing.

Historical Studies

As to the philosophy and history found in these morphological works, they are indicative of a life-long interest in both these fields. In Arber's first book Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution, she focused on the period from 1470 to 1670, from the time the first printed herbals appeared to when herbals began to be replaced by botanical works that focused less on the practical uses of plants and more on their morphological characteristics. An expanded and revised edition was published in 1938, and most later historical investigations on herbals always refer to Arber's book. This was her only book on history, but throughout her career Arber wrote historical pieces, contributing to such publications as Isis and Chronica Botanica. She wrote a comparison between Nehemiah Grew and Marcello Malpighi (1942), and also wrote on such other figures from the history of botany as John Ray (1943) and Sir Joseph Banks (1945).

Arber became fascinated by Goethe's ideas on botany when she was in school, and at the age of 65, published a translation and commentary on his Attempt to Interpret the Metamorphosis of Plants (1945). Goethe developed the concept of the Urblatt or primal form to which all leaves are related, and he argued that all plant appendages, including the parts of the flower, are forms of the leaf. He also conceived of a Urpflanze or primal plant from which the forms of all plant species could be derived. This idea did not necessarily have an evolutionary character; instead, it stemmed from Goethe's fascination with the idea of a fundamental unity underlying the diversity among living things. Arber also found the concept of unity in diversity very attractive, and as she did less laboratory research she turned more to the study of the philosophical implications of this idea in botany.

Philosophical Studies

In the preface to her 1950 book The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form, Arber writes that she came to see plant morphology as related to philosophy, where "it converges with metaphysics, to which it brings its own, distinctively visual, contribution" (p. viii). Ideas like morphology making a visual contribution to metaphysics definitely require reflection: what does the living world, with its visual richness, contribute to questions of reality? Arber adds that she will make "a tentative and provisional attempt to review the relations of parts in the flowering plants in the light of those more universal, and also more stringent, modes of thought, which are characteristic of philosophy rather than of biology" (p. viii). She realizes the scientific limb she is going out on, and it is not surprising that this book was not well-received by most of the botanical community. But it is intriguing nonetheless, because it is the product of a lifetime of not only doing botany but of thinking about what it means to do botany.

Not surprisingly, Arber starts with history—a review of the concept of plant form, spending time on Aristotle, Albertus Magnus, and a number of other students of botany, and coming ultimately Goethe and another like-minded 19th-century botanist, Casimir de Candolle. The rest of the history of morphology gets short shrift because Arber sees the science as having been reduced in importance because of evolutionary thought leading to interest in form as adaptation as opposed to form in itself. She tries to renew interest in the latter with her own unifying principle: not the leaf as the principle plant form, but rather, the leaf as a partial-shoot, with the "urge to whole-shoot-hood."

As is her way, Arber presents a great deal of evidence for this idea, complete with many illustrations. Later in the book, she also attempts to update Goethe's ideas by replacing the concept of type with the idea of "parallel becoming," with fundamental forms developing along different, but somehow parallel lines. The obscurity of some of her ideas easily explains why they were unpopular (Eyde, 1975). But she is grappling with difficult issues that few botanists would even attempt to tackle, though these are real issues, issues about how the human mind organizes ideas of form and about how much of our knowledge of form is influenced by basic philosophical assumptions. And there is a school of thought in botany that continues to be interested in Arber's botanical and philosophical ideas to this day, as evidenced by the fact that there was a symposium at the last International Botanical Congress in 1999 where papers related her morphological work to the latest research on vascular plant development.

While some, like H. Hamshaw Thomas (1960) consider Natural Philosophy as Arber's most important book, I would give that distinction to The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint (1954) which is an introduction to the process of biological inquiry. Arber sees it as a six-step process, with the first two steps being to find a question to explore and then to investigate that question. Next, comes the interpretation of the results of the investigation, of observations or experiments, followed by testing the validity of this interpretation. Step five is communicating one's results, and step six—to which Arber devotes half her book—involves considering this research in the context of science as a whole, in other words, doing precisely what Arber did in Natural Philosophy: interpreting research in terms of history and philosophy.

While there is a great deal in The Mind and the Eye that is standard fare in introductory level books on scientific inquiry, there are a number of things that make this book distinctive. First of all, it was written in 1954, when logical positivism was still a potent force in the philosophy of science. This was before Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists are influenced by the views of other scientists, and before Ernst Mayr contended that much of what passed as philosophy of science was really philosophy of physics and that the way biology is done could not be described according to this view. Arber prefigured both these thinkers. As a precursor of Kuhn, she writes that "the tyranny of the Zeitgeist is obvious enough to us in the scientific writing of fifty years ago, whereas we are less aware of it in that of this year" (p. 8). And like Mayr, she sees comparative studies as vital to biology while they are of little importance in the physical sciences.

Arber is also aware of the importance of aesthetic considerations in doing science: "No one, indeed, can reach a creative solution of a [scientific] problem which he does not approach con amore" (p. 9). She even brings up issues similar to those Rudolf Arnheim raises in his work on the psychology of art: "The use of pictorial imagery in thinking is a fundamental need of the human mind" (p. 122). And in the book's final chapter where she discusses the relationship between the mind and the eye, she makes an important contribution to our understanding of how essential are interactions of the two in biological inquiry. All those years of looking through a microscope, of following Goethe's advice that you only really look at something when you draw it, and of reflecting on what, precisely she was doing in this process, led her to great insights on this subject, to seeing more deeply into what it is to study the living world than most people take the time to comprehend.


As a new century and a new millenium get underway, it is easy to lose sight of the notable thinkers of the past. I would argue that Agnes Arber is one such individual who deserves attention in the century ahead, particularly because she presented a view of biological inquiry that is still fresh and significant today. And though her career as a woman scientist seems to say little to women of today, it is nonetheless a reminder of the paths women followed and what they were able to achieve when their options were much more limited than now. If you want to begin to get to know Agnes Arber, then I would suggest you start where I did with The Mind and the Eye. It will introduce you to a wonderful mind that you might well want to follow into her other works.

Note: I would like to thank Rudi Schmidt of the University of California at Berkeley for all his correspondence and information on Agnes Arber and Anita Karg of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation for her assistance in reviewing the materials on Arber held at the Institute.


  • Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Arber, A. (1906). Nehemiah Grew and the Study of Plant Anatomy. Science Progress-London, 1, 150-158.
  • Arber, A. (1912). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
  • Arber, A. (1913). The Botanical Philosophy of Guy de la Brosse: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Thought. Isis, 1, 359-369.
  • Arber, A. (1920). Water Plants: A Study of Aquatic Angiosperms. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
  • Arber, A. (1925). Monocotyledons: A Morphological Study. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
  • Arber, A. (1934). The Gramineae: A Study of Cereal, Bamboo, and Grass. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
  • Arber, A. (1942). Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) and Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694): An Essay in Comparison. Isis, 34, 7-16.
  • Arber, A. (1943). A Seventeenth-Century Naturalist: John Ray. Isis, 34, 319-324.
  • Arber, A. (1945). Sir Joseph Banks and Botany. Chronica Botanica, 9, 94-106.
  • Arber, A. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
  • Arber, A. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist's Standpoint. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
  • Arber, A. (1957). The Manifold and the One. London: John Murray.
  • Boney, A.D. (1995). The Botanical 'Establishment' Closes Ranks: Fifteen Days in January 1921. The Linnean, 11(3), 26-37.
  • Eyde, R.H. (1975). The Foliar Theory of the Flower. American Scientist, 63, 430-437.
  • Hauke, Richard L. (1996). Vignettes from the History of Plant Morphology. [Online]. Available: [2001, January 26].
  • Packer, K. (1997). A Laboratory of One's Own: The Life and Works of Agnes Arber, F.R.S. (1879-1960). Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 51(1), 87-104.
  • Richmond, M. (1997). "A Lab of One's Own": The Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women at Cambridge University, 1884-1914. Isis, 88(3), 422-455.
  • Stearn, W.T. (1960). Obituary of Agnes Arber. Taxon, 9, 261-263.
  • Thomas, H. (1960). Agnes Arber, 1879-1960. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 6, 1-11.

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