Muriel Wheldale Onslow

Snapdragons and Foxglove

March 31, 1880  
Today is the birthday of the biochemist Muriel Wheldale Onslow who researched flower color inheritance and pigment molecule biochemistry.

Muriel was born in England and ended up marrying a fellow biochemist named Victor Onslow. Victor was actually the son of royalty - his dad was the fourth Earl of Onslow. Muriel and Victor's story is special. When Victor was a student at Cambridge, he became paralyzed from the waist down after diving off a cliff into a lake. The accident also left him with limited use of his arms and hands. Even though Victor and Muriel were married for only a little over three years before Victor's untimely death, their love was a story of mutual admiration and respect. When Muriel recorded her memoir of Victor, she wrote that he was a man of amazing courage and mental vitality; and that he was an inspiration to their peers in biochemistry.

Early in her career, in 1903, Muriel became part of its genetics group working at Cambridge University, and it was here that she began studying flower petal color. Much of her research specifically focused on snapdragons which come in a range of flower colors including green, red, orange, yellow, white, purple, and pink - and now even bicolor and speckled. Muriel's work on coloration gained her worldwide recognition by 1910 she had published a whopping four papers on color inheritance in snapdragons.

Snapdragons or Antirrhinum majus ("ant-er-EYE-num MAY-jus") are a beloved cottage garden flower. It's a cousin to the foxglove.
Snapdragons are happiest when planted early, in cool weather. They will bloom their hearts out all summer long. Then, if you cut them back in August, you will get a second flush of color in the fall.

And here are a few final notes about Muriel Whelan Onslow.
Muriel was multi-talented. In addition to her scientific work, she was also an artist. Her Botanical illustrations are actually quite good, and she was often regarded as a top botanical artist among her scientific colleagues.

As one of the few female scientists of her time, there are just a handful of fantastic online images of Muriel working in her laboratory. They are a must-see if you get the chance.

And you might recall that a decade ago in 2010, the Royal Institution in England put on a play called blooming snapdragons. The play was about for female biochemist of the early 20th century. Naturally, one of them was Muriel Onslow. 

This post was featured on
The Daily Gardener podcast:

helping gardeners find their roots,
one story at a time
Muriel Wheldale Onslow
Muriel Wheldale Onslow

Leave a Comment