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Florence Buchanan

21 April 1867
13 March 1931 (age 63)

Florence Buchanan made history by becoming the first woman to become a member of The Physiological Society. Her main work focused on heart rhythms, or electrophysiology. She authored many research papers which was rare for a woman in the 19th century. Notably, she wrote the first ever article in the first issue of the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology (QJEP), known today as Experimental Physiology

Buchanan obtained a BSc Zoology degree from University College London. After graduating, she carried out research work on marine polychaete worms, and published professional articles in science journals.

In 1896, at the age of 29, she was recruited to Oxford by Sir John Scott Burdon-Sanderson to be his private research assistant. There, she spent nine years assisting in electrophysiological research, which focuses on heart rhythms to monitor various heart conditions. During this time she gained a science doctorate from the London University. This was extremely rare for women of her time as very few universities granted such high awards to women. After Burdon-Sanderson’s death, Buchanan went on to carry out studies on heart rate and pulse during exercise, working with researchers such as Krogh and Lindhard.

Buchanan attended her first meeting of The Physiological Society in 1896. At that time, women had a difficult time being recognised as serious scientists. The Society never explicitly excluded women, who were occasionally allowed to attend meetings which would sometimes contain live readings or experiments. But one of the central events of the meetings – the dinners that followed them – were only open to the members of the Society, and as such were exclusive only to men.

In 1912, the proposal of Florence Buchanan for membership of The Physiological Society was the pivotal moment that stimulated the formal debate to include women into the Society. The proposal came from her colleague and family friend John Scott Haldane, a distinguished respiratory physiologist from Oxford. At this point, Buchanan had already delivered at least 10 lectures to the Society.

As a result of the debate, a new rule was passed by the Society in January 1915, stating that ‘women be eligible for membership of the Society and have the same rights, duties and privileges as men’. Buchanan received 50 signatures in favour of her membership, and on 3 July 1915, Buchanan made history alongside five other women by becoming the first female members of The Physiological Society.

Buchanan’s contributions to the Society and The Journal of Physiology included electrophysiological work on skeletal muscle fibres and comparative studies of heart function, including cardiovascular assessments of the effects of hibernation. Despite her failing eyesight in her later years, she continued working at Oxford’s University Laboratory of Physiology until her death.

Florence Buchanan died on 13 March 1931, aged 64, in the Acland Nursing Home, now known as The Manor Hospital. Her grave is in Wolvercote Cemetary right behind the grave of her former mentor, Burdon-Sanderson.

On 3rd July 2015 The Physiological Society is celebrating 100 years of women and diversity within the society.