• Meet the Woman who Saved the Fate of Strawberries

    Kimberly Glassman

    The first government-appointed plant pathologist in Scotland, best known for her research on strains of disease-resistant strawberries.

    Nora Lilian Alcock, née Scott, (also known as Nora Lilian Lepart and Nora Lilian Leopard) was born in Hampstead, London on 18 August 1874. She left Britain at an early age to follow her father to Egypt where he was the judicial advisor to the khedive. During her childhood, she was educated at home. In 1905 she moved to Montreal, Canada to be with her soon to be husband who was later appointed as a professor of physiology at McGill University. However, he sadly died of leukaemia shortly after his 1911 appointment, in 1913. Recently widowed, and left with four children to provide for, Alcock moved back to London where she worked briefly in a hospital lab, believed to be the Department of Physiology at the University of London, before obtaining a post at the Plant Pathology Laboratory of the Ministry of Agriculture in Kew Gardens, a position she held from 1913 to 1924. At the age of 39, she had entered the world of professional plant pathology, though relatively late in life compared to her contemporaries. Despite her age, Alcock flourished in the scientific community and quickly became a pivotal expert on mycology (the study of fungi) working under the auspices of Sir John Fryer, John Ramsbottom, and Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan.

    In 1922, Alcock became a fellow of the Linnaean Society, which had only just started admitting women in 1904 (sadly, even in 2020 women still only made up 22 percent of the elected fellows). This appointment is doubly impressive since many women, including Alcock's lifelong friend and colleague Gwynne-Vaughan, were expected to return to domestic life after the end of WWI. As a widow and field specialist, Alcock was able to advance in her career. In 1924, she moved to Edinburgh to take on the position of Plant Pathologist in the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. This was a new post established to help horticulturalists investigate plant diseases. It was also the first government-appointed plant pathologist position in Scotland. There Alcock carried out research on disease-resistant varieties of strawberries and, once the varieties were identified, supervised their breeding program.

    So influential was her work that a plaque commemorating her achievements was erected in her honour.

    Alcock was extremely concerned with the need for legislative control and regulation over plant diseases informed by the work of plant pathologists. She first raised the issue with the British Association in 1928, and later, in 1931, with the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, on the topic "Common Diseases Sometimes Seed-Borne". It was at this time that Alcock also published a list of seed-borne mycoflora of forage crops, ornamental crops, and vegetables in Scotland. In 1935, Alcock was awarded an MBE for her pioneering studies in seed pathology (which included the compilation of a comprehensive list of seed-borne diseases), and for identifying the fungus (later known as Phytophthora fragariae) that had been affecting strawberries in the Clyde Valley in the 1920s and 1930s. Somehow finding time amidst her innovative research, Alcock also dedicated herself to teaching botany to prisoners of war during WWII.

    At the age of 63 Alcock retired, but did not stop working. In 1938 she went to visit her friend, Mrs Crompton, in Australia, where she went on to study local Australian flora in Melbourne and Sydney. From 1924 to 1957, she continued to serve as a plant pathologist for the Board of Agriculture for Scotland. Alcock was a member of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs and the Edinburgh Soroptimists. She died in 1972, at the age of 97, in Berkshire. Her successor and biographer, Charles E. Foister remembers her fondly ‘for her gentle, graceful and charming personality, for her firm resolution and complete integrity, and for her gift as a witty raconteuse’.