Dame Helen Charlotte Isabella Gwynne-Vaughan was a prominent English botanist and mycologist...and much more!
Helen Fraser was born into a Scottish aristocratic family in 1879. Educated at Cheltenham Ladies College her parents were shocked when she asked to study science at university. After obtaining a B.Sc. degree in Botany from King's College, London she carried out research into mycology.
In 1907 Fraser joined with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to form the University of London Women's Suffrage Society. She also became a lecturer at Birkbeck College and became Head of the Botany Department in 1909.
In 1911 Helen married the palaeobotanist, Professor Gwynne-Vaughan.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Gwynne-Vaughan joined the Red Cross and became a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment was a voluntary organization providing field nursing services, mainly in hospitals, in the United Kingdom and various other countries in the British Empire]. This work was halted by the need to nurse her seriously ill husband. On the death of David Thomas Gwynne-Vaughan in 1915, she returned to her voluntary war work.
In January 1917, the government announced the establishment of a new voluntary service, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). The plan was for these women to serve as clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks, and as instructors in the use of gas masks. It was decided that women would not be allowed to hold commissions and so that those in charge were given the ranks of controller and administrator. Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was chosen for the important job as the WAAC's Chief Controller (in France). For her service she became the first woman to receive a military CBE [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire]in 1918.
After a critical report of the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) by Lady Margaret Rhondda, its commander, Violet Douglas-Pennant was dismissed. In September, 1918, Gwynne-Vaughan, who had gained a reputation as an efficient administrator in the WAAC, was asked by Sir William Weir, Secretary of State for Air, to take charge of the WRAF.
Gwynne-Vaughan was a great success as commander of the Women's Royal Air Force. Sir Sefton Brancker argued that "the WRAF was the best disciplined and best turned-out women's organization in the country." However, after the war it was decided to disband the WRAF and Gwynne-Vaughan left office in December, 1919. In additional recognition of her service, she was elevated to GBE [Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – the highest of the Orders of the British Empire].
In 1921, she returned as a professor at Birkbeck College and continued her studies on fungi genetics as well as becoming involved in politics. In 1922 she published the well-received Fungi: Ascomycetes, Ustilaginales, Uredinales. Elected President of the British Mycological Society, she wrote a series of substantial papers in the 1920s and 1930s on the cytology of fungi.
Gwynne-Vaughan helped to form the WRAF Old Comrades Association and became its first president in March 1920. With war with Germany looking inevitable in the summer of 1939, Gwynne-Vaughan was asked to become head of the recently established Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). As she was now sixty she declined the offer and instead suggested Jane Trefusis-Forbes, the
Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS). However, she did agree to become Major-General of the ATS (1939-1941) [The ATS was made up from three organizations – the Emergency Services, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the Women’s Legion. All three were combined into one organization known as the Women’s Auxiliary Defense Service, which was itself, absorbed into the Territorial Army and was renamed ATS.]
In 1941 Gwynne-Vaughan left the ATS and returned to Birkbeck College where she remained until her retirement as Professor Emeritus in 1944. Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was active in the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association until just before her death in 1967.