Royal Society of Biology logo Winifred Cullis Physician Heritage Lottery Fund logo Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council logo

header image

Winifred Cullis

2 June 1875
13 November 1956 (age 81)

Winifred Cullis was a British physician in the early twentieth century. She was the first woman to hold a professorship at a medical school and was an active campaigner both for the advancement of women and for international co-operation.

Cullis grew up in Birmingham, England and attended King Edward VI School as a child. While there she also went to Mason College for extra tuition in biology. The research assistants at the time were outraged at having to teach a girl, initially refusing to do so.

After leaving school Cullis went on to study Natural Sciences at Newnham College in Cambridge. On graduating she became a demonstrator of physiology at the London School for Women (now the Royal Free Hospital) and became head of department in 1912. She was one of the first six women to be elected to The Physiological Society on 3rd July 1915, making a huge step towards sexual equality and acknowledging women as equal in intelligence and academic rigour as men. In 1919 she became the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a medical school when she became Professor of Physiology at the University of London.

That she was able to achieve so much for the position of women all over the world was due to her great charm and genial personality. Her large-minded and generous nature made an immediate impression on people of all kinds.

Winifred Cullis obituary, British Medical Journal

Cullis worked with scientist T G Brodie and the pair published a number of ground-breaking papers including one on the secretion of urine. They described an improved method for perfusing a rabbit’s heart – the method of keeping a heart supplied with blood while outside of the body. It was an important technique that can be used to study many functions of the heart, and Cullis later used it to analyse the content of oxygen and carbonic acid in saline solutions.

Cullis was also interested in studying the anatomy of the heart. While working with pharmacologist W E Dixon, she researched the function of the atrio-ventricular bundle – fibres at the centre of the heart that carry electrical impulses. She then went on to work with Enid Tribe and wrote about the distribution of nerves within the heart.

Cullis was a committed feminist, touring the world to give public lectures. During the First World War she lectured troops in Gibraltar and Malta on physiology and health. For her contributions she was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and later a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), a rank above her previous title. She continued her work in the Second World War, lecturing in the Far East, Middle East and America on women’s war work.

From 1925-29, Cullis was President of the British Federation of University Women, now the British Federation of Women Graduates and from 1929-32 she was President of the International Federation of University Women which aims to empower women and girls through lifetime education.

Dancing was also a large part of Cullis’ life. She managed to combine her two passions and taught classes on the anatomy and physiology of movement at the Royal Academy of Dance. She also wrote talks for the BBC Schools Programmes and hers was the first school book to include passages on growth, reproduction and heredity.

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