Florence Margaret Durham (6 April 1869 – 25 June 1949) was a British geneticist at Cambridge in the early 1900s and an advocate of the theory of Mendelian inheritance, at a time when it was still controversial. She was part of an informal school of genetics at Cambridge led by her brother-in-law William Bateson. Her work on the heredity of coat colours in mice and canaries helped to support and extend Mendel’s law of heredity. It is also one of the first examples of epistasis.
Florence Margaret Durham was born in London, one of six daughters of surgeon Arthur Edward Durham (1833–1895) and his wife Mary Ann Cantwell. Arthur Durham was an alcoholic and his wife was strongly opposed to alcohol.
In 1891 and 1892, Florence Durham achieved second class honours in the Natural Sciences Tripos Part I and II (physiology) at Girton College. She lectured in Biology at Royal Holloway College and the Froebel Institute in London from 1893 to 1899. She also lectured in physiology at Newnham College. From 1900 to 1910, she was a demonstrator in Physiology at the Balfour Laboratory.
Towards the end of the 19th century, female students were still facing resistance from Cambridge academics, including a move by some scientists to prevent them from taking introductory biology courses. A letter from Durham published in the Girton Review called on the women’s colleges Girton and Newnham to “encourage advanced and research work and thus to show the world that women mean to do serious work and have higher aims in view than mere success in examination.” The colleges responded to this and other pressure by raising money for more research fellowships.
Florence Durham’s sister Beatrice first became engaged to William Bateson in 1889, but at the engagement party, Bateson was thought to have had too much wine, so Mrs. Durham prevented her daughters’ engagement. Beatrice and William finally married in June 1896, by which time Arthur Durham had died and his wife had either died (according to Henig) or had somehow been persuaded to drop her opposition to the marriage (according to Cock).
During this period, Gregor Mendel‘s work on inheritance was rediscovered and caused a bitter controversy between its supporters – William Bateson and his group of Mendelians – and its opponents, who included Walter Frank Raphael Weldon (Bateson’s former teacher) and Carl Pearson. Weldon’s group were known as the Biometrics.
Bateson’s group at Cambridge was very unusual for its time, in that it was made up mainly of women. It was there that Florence Durham, Edith Rebecca “Becky” Saunders and Muriel Wheldale performed work to show that complex traits could be explained by Mendel’s law of segregation. Bateson’s wife Beatrice was also actively involved in his research.
Florence Durham joined the group as a post-graduate research student who had already published research. She worked on several projects. In 1905 she began a collaboration with Dorothea Charlotte Edith Marrya on sex inheritance and eye colour in canaries. Their published observations in Durham and Marryat (1908) that pink eyes and female sex were inherited together in cinnamon canaries provided a possible mammalian example for sex linkage that had been recorded in moths. Durham continued working with canaries for at least the next decade.
In 1906 she attended the Third International Conference on Genetics in London and attended a further international congress in 1911.
After Bateson accepted a position as director of the new John Innes Horticultural Institute, which opened in Surrey in 1910, Florence Durham moved there to work with him on plant genetics, including a study of tetraploid primrose hybrids.