Notable alumni: Dame Helen Charlotte Isabella Gwynne-Vaughan GBE

Dame Helen Charlotte Isabella Gwynne-Vaughan GBE

Botanist, mycologist and military officer

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (née Fraser; 1879–1967) graduated in Botany from King’s in 1904.

Following her degree, Helen continued her research into mycology (the study of fungi) and in 1909, at the age of thirty, was appointed head of the botany department at Birkbeck College, University of London.

During the First World War, Helen was invited by the War Office to help form the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The organisation quickly expanded to number some 10,000 recruits, ranging from cooks to machine maintenance technicians, and made a significant contribution to the war effort in France. Helen then served as Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force from September 1918 to December 1919, being awarded a military DBE in January 1919.

Following the war, Helen returned to her research at Birkbeck, becoming a professor of botany in 1921. She published widely over the next few years and greatly expanded the department. She was made president of the Mycological Society in 1928.

Helen was also prominent in politics, standing as the Conservative candidate for the North Camberwell constituency and serving on a number of government committees. She was appointed a Dame Grand Cross (GBE) for public and scientific services in 1929.

The Second World War saw Helen again called to military service as the first Chief Controller of the Auxiliary Territorial Service between 1939 and 1941. Returning to Birkbeck, she retired as Professor Emeritus in 1944.

Did you know: Helen has a number of fungal species named in her honour, including Palaeoendogone gwynne-vaughaniae and Pleurage gwynne-vaughaniae.