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Climbing the tree of knowledge

Name: Johanna Westerdijk
Nationality: Dutch
Lived: 1883-1961
Fields: Botany
Claim to fame: The first female professor in the Netherlands

Dutch botanist Johanna Westerdijk (1883-1961), the first female professor in the Netherlands, built up one of the world’s largest botanical collections and made major contributions to our understanding of plant diseases.

Planting the seeds of learning

Johanna Westerdijk was born in Nieuwer-Amstel, a village that was later incorporated into Amsterdam, in 1883. The daughter of a doctor, she grew up in an intellectually stimulating, medical and artistic milieu.
Johanna attended a girls’ secondary school in Amsterdam, which she completed in 1900. Her subsequent studies and career took her to Germany, Switzerland and as far away as Indonesia, Japan and the United States.

A woman’s woman

Throughout her life, the Netherlands’ first woman professor was well-known for being warm and hospitable, a great lover of music and a ‘party animal’. She never described herself as a feminist, but the cause of other women scientists was always close to her heart.
For instance, in the United States in 1915, she criticised the way in which female colleagues were restricted in their professional activities there. She was also active in national and international unions for women academics. Between 1932 and 1936, she was the president of the International Federation of University Women.
By 1958, she had retired from the various positions she held. Soon after, Johanna was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis. She died in Baarn, the Netherlands in 1961.

Purveyor of culture

For a Dutch woman with her kind of education, going abroad was the only way to earn a postgraduate degree. After gaining a qualification to teach plant and animal science at secondary school, Johanna Westerdijk moved to Munich in 1904, not to teach, but to conduct research on moss. A year later, she moved to Zurich where she studied moss regeneration, earning her PhD cum laude in 1906.
That same year, Westerdijk became the director of the small and private Amsterdam-based Phytopathological Laboratory Willie Commelin Scholten. In 1907, she received the fungus collection of the International Association of Botanists. She was to nurture this into a world-leading repository which, in 1932, was turned into the Central Bureau of Fungus Cultures (CBS). Under her stewardship over nearly half a century, the CBS’s collection grew from just 80 sample cultures to some 11 000.
In 1913, Westerdijk went on a study trip to Indonesia, Japan and the United States during which she made a lot of important connections, not least among colonial entrepreneurs, that would help in her work. Later in her career, she also visited South Africa where she helped found a similar laboratory at the University of Pretoria. Westerdijk was appointed professor extraordinarius of plant pathology at the University of Utrecht in 1916 – a second professorship followed in 1930 at the University of Amsterdam. In 1936, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

Golden mould

In 1920, Utrecht University was given a large private garden (the Canton park) in Baarn (near Utrecht) that was turned into a hortus botanicus. When a neighbouring villa was put on the market, Westerdijk convinced the board of the laboratory that the botanical garden’s future success depended on buying the property.
Soon after, the laboratory and the fungus collection, as well as the related research facilities, moved there. Under her direction, a large research programme began on parasitic fungi and other subjects. A total of 56 botanists received their PhDs under Westerdijk, including 25 women. One of her first doctoral students discovered the cause of elm disease, which is why it is known today as ‘Dutch elm disease’.
Research at the laboratory and bureau gradually became more fundamental in nature. It focused on the life cycles of pathogenic fungi and on the redefining of the species concept, based on both their pathogenic behaviour on host plants and their appearance in pure culture. Today, the CBS maintains over 50 000 strains of microorganisms, making it the most diverse reference centre for mycological research.

Scientific achievements

Johanna Westerdijk is remembered as the first woman to gain tenure as a professor in the Netherlands. This trailblazing achievement paved the way for future generations of her countrywomen to enter the hallowed chambers of academia’s upper echelons. Despite her refusal to defi ne herself as a feminist, throughout her career she took many practical steps to further the cause of female researchers and academics.
Scientifically, Westerdijk created what has become an internationally renowned laboratory. In addition, she brought together the world’s greatest collection of fungus cultures, which has advanced our understanding of botany and helped uncover treatments for plant fungal diseases, such as Dutch elm disease. Independent of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, the Willie Commelin Scholten lab tested the antagonism of Penicillium Expansum on several bacteria. In the 1940s and 1950s, the medical applications of fungi were to grow in importance. In 1952, she became the second woman to be admitted to the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences.