Continuing our series to recognize women in science who made contributions to our understanding of the natural world, today we will highlight Wanda Kirkbride Farr.  

Ms. Farr is not a household name.  Actually, she is not very well known at all.  In researching this post, I discovered very little information about her.  Perhaps there should be more given her contributions. 

Wanda Margarite Kirkbride Farr (1895-1983) Smithsonian Institution, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Farr was born in Ohio in 1895 and graduated from Ohio University in 1915 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.   She subsequently received a master’s degree in botany from Columbia University in 1918.  She was going to move on to her Ph.D. program but postponed that to become a trailing spouse at Washington University in St. Louis.  Here she worked with plant cell cultures. This work likely set her up for her major scientific breakthroughs.

For about a hundred years, scientists were baffled by how cellulose formed in the walls of plant cells.   Traditional techniques yielded no insights.  Without getting too deeply into the science, Farr applied lessons from working with plant root-hairs and algae to this problem.  The results allowed her and subsequent scientists to “see” the process happening.  She also proved that cellulose could be produced without chlorophyll, which previously had not been considered possible.  This finding and several others are now recognized as some of the fundamental knowledge of modern plant biology.  

During World War II, when women’s contributions were often under-appreciated, the American Cyanamid research team invited Farr to join their effort.   By 1956, she established her own research company, Farr Cyochemical Laboratories (originally located in Camden, ME).  She continued to contribute knowledge to Celanese (a chemical company), General Foods, and NASA until the time of her passing.  

She died at 75 years old, generally unrecognized by her peers.  


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