Helen Gwynne-Vaughan – dame and botanist 

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen was Birkbeck’s first female professor and a prominent English botanist. In 1909 she became Head of the Botany Department at Birkbeck and gained her professorship in 1921.

She became the first woman to wear the insignia of a Military Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918 and was transferred to become Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) later that year. In 1919, Helen was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Helen’s professionalism helped to change male attitudes towards women in the armed forces and she would go on to play a pivotal role in forming the Emergency Services, an organisation established to train female officers. Helen was appointed Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army in 1938 and held the position until her retirement from military service in 1941.

She is commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at Flat 93, Bedford Court Mansions in Bloomsbury – her London home for almost 50 years.


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