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SMITH, Ellen Marion Delf- (1883-1980)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0370 EMDS
Held at: Queen Mary, University of London
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Full title: SMITH, Ellen Marion Delf- (1883-1980)
Date(s): 1895-1974
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 8 boxes, 1 outsize item
Name of creator(s): Smith | Ellen Marion | Delf | 1883-1980 | botanist
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

Delf-Smith, Ellen Marion (1883-1980), botanist, was born on 31 January 1883. Educated at the James Allen Girls' School, Dulwich, and at Girton College, Cambridge, she studied under such historic figures as Marshall Ward and F. F. Blackman. At Girton she earned a first class in both parts of the natural sciences tripos, and was joint winner of the Montefiore prize in 1906, her final year. Originally planning to stay at Cambridge to study plant physiology with F. F. Blackman, she instead accepted an offer to teach botany at Westfield College, University of London.

In the early years there were few facilities for science teaching at Westfield and she had no help. Equipment grants and technicians were unknown, and if she wanted a specimen she had to go out and collect it and prepare it herself. In 1910 the University of London approved the Westfield laboratory to prepare students for the final BSc pass examination in botany and granted Delf the status of a recognized teacher of the university. The college was recognized to prepare students for honours degrees in botany in 1915.

By working at the Joddrell Laboratory, Kew, she took her London D.Sc. in 1912. Her main studies were in plant physiology, but in later years her interests widened to take in the marine algae and indeed a large number of other subjects. Between 1911 and 1916 she studied the transpiration of plants, the process by which plants excrete water, particularly the morphology of Ulvaceae or seaweeds, publishing her results in four papers in the Annals of Botany. In 1912 she was awarded the London DSc degree for a thesis based on original research, as well as the Gamble prize from Girton for an essay entitled 'The biology of transpiration'.

In 1914 Delf was granted a Yarrow fellowship from Girton to work on transpiration in evergreens, but the demands of the First World War made her feel that she should be more directly involved in war work and so from December 1916 to January 1920 she was a research assistant at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London. As a member of a team led by Dr Harriet Chick she investigated the vitamin content of foods as pertaining to the rations of the military.

After the war, she was returned to Westfield, yet left once more in 1920 to go to South Africa as a temporary research fellow attached to the Institute of Medical Research, Johannesburg, where she continued her vitamin research; investigating the vitamin C content in the diets of local mine workers. She was offered a chance to remain permanently in South Africa, but chose to return to Westfield, when she learned that a new laboratory had just been built for her. From 1922 her connection with Westfield was unbroken; she was appointed a university reader in 1921, became head of the Westfield botany department in 1939, and directed the developing Botany Department through its removal to a new building and over its war years in evacuation in Oxford. Many of her students proceeded to posts in higher education and research and attribute their scientific awakening to her stimulus and interest.

In 1928 she married Percy John Smith, well-known as an artist, etcher and letterer from which time she was generally known as Delf-Smith. She moved with him to Haverstock Hill in Hampstead, remaining at Westfield as a non-resident lecturer. He pre-deceased her in 1948, the year of her retirement. After retirement she continued her association with Westfield as President of the Westfield College Association, 1950-1955, and subsequently as an Honorary Fellow, appointed in 1955. Delf-Smith was a life member of the British Association, a fellow of the Linnean Society, a member of the South East London Botany Society, the South East Union of Scientific Societies, and the Association of Women Science Teachers, served on the advisory algae committee of the Scottish Seaweed Organization and for many years was an Honorary Member of the British Phycological Society. She died on 23 February 1980 at the age of ninety-seven.


Scope and content/abstract:

This collection contains the personal and professional papers of Ellen Delf-Smith, 1895-1974. It comprises papers relating to Westfield College; including Career Developments 1906-1922; Teaching papers 1934-1947; Retirement 1948; Contact with ex colleagues and students 1917-1948; Continuation of the legacy of Ellen Delf-Smith 1955-1964; and 90th Birthday Celebrations 1973. Research and Academic Interests; including Publications 1940-1950; Laboratory Work and Experiments 1926-1966; Field Work and Samples 1915-1932; Secondary Research 1936-1938; and Academic Interests 1912-1974. Papers from work in South Africa; including Field Work 1920; and Letters from colleagues in South Africa 1921-1923. Personal memorabilia and ephemera; including School and College 1895-1934; Marriage 1926-1973; Diaries 1925-1948; Photographs and Drawings c.1906-c.1935; and a Church Donation 1976.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

This collection is arranged by provenance and function, and where possible original order. It has been divided into four series; Westfield College; Research and Academic Interests; Papers from work in South Africa; and Personal memorabilia and ephemera.

Conditions governing access:

The Archives are available for access in the Archives Reading Room located on the 2nd Floor of the Mile End Library. The Archives Reading Room is open Mondays to Fridays 9am-4pm by appointment only. Contact the Archives for more information: Archives, Main Library QMUL, 328 Mile End Rd, London E1 4NS, telephone: 020 7882 3873, email: For more information about the Archives see the website:

Conditions governing reproduction:

Photocopying at the discretion of the Archivist. Applications for copies for research or publication should be made to the Archivist: Main Library QMUL, 328 Mile End Rd, London E1 4NS, telephone: 020 7882 7873, email:

Finding aids:

A detailed catalogue is available in the Archives Reading Room, or downloadable from the Archives website,

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Bequeathed to Westfield College.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Westfield College Collection, held at Queen Mary, University of London.

Percy John Delf Smith Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Catalogued by Sarah Palmer, November 2009.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
June 2010

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