Dr Kathleen Drew-Baker (1901-1957)
The scientist who became Japan’s seaweed saviour.
Leigh born Dr Kathleen won a scholarship to study botany at Manchester University, graduating with flying colours in 1921. After a two year stint studying seaweed at Berkeley College, California (where she’d pop to Hawaii to collect samples) she returned to Manchester Uni to take up a research and lecturing post.
She tied the knot with a fellow academic in 1928 and was promptly sacked by Manchester University due to the ‘no married women teaching’ laws in place at the time. Determined to continue with her seaweed studies, she got round the barmy legislation by becoming an honorary research fellow.
She became co-founder and first president of the British Phycological Society – that’s the algae study society to you and me.
Her ground breaking discoveries led Dr Kathleen to become the saviour of nori, or sushi seaweed. Nori had been harvested along Japan’s coastlines for hundreds of years. But from the late 1940s a series of crop failures devastated supply. Farmers and scientists were at a loss as to what was causing the issue. As harvests were so unpredictable nori became known as “gamblers’ grass”.
Dr Kathleen realised that in order to kick start a growth cycle, seaweed spores need to hang out in old seashells to seed. Through studying her findings, scientists in Japan were able to figure out that a lack of old shells had led to their lack of nori. They used her discoveries to develop improved farming methods, control the production process and create a billion dollar (or Yen) industry.
Dr Kathleen died unaware of how her research was to alter the destiny of the nori industry. However seaweed business bigwigs ensure that recognition of her contribution lives on. In the 1960s a monument dedicated to Drew, the “Mother of the Sea”, was built in Sumiyoshi Shrine Park, Osaka. Each April 14 it’s decked in flower garlands at the annual Drew Festival attended by nori industry leaders.
A few years ago Dr Kathleen’s family visited the festival. They received a rapturous welcome, mobbed by TV crews and photographers.