Helen Fraser was born in 1879 London into an aristocratic Scottish family, the daughter of an army captain and a novelist. After her father’s early death, the career of her diplomat stepfather meant Helen was largely educated abroad by governesses, although she spent her final school year at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. At 17, she became a somewhat reluctant debutante – but two summers spent working with her mother and sister in London girls’ clubs, which introduced her to working-class women, made her aware of her leadership abilities.
Aged 20, she convinced her doubtful family to allow her to study for the Oxford entrance examinations to the ladies’ department of King’s College London, and became one of the college’s first women students, gaining a BSc in Botany in 1904. Acting as research assistant to mycologist V. H. Blackman during her studies, following graduation she became his demonstrator for a year. The following year she worked as demonstrator for Royal Holloway College botanist Margaret Benson; the year after that she was offered an assistant lectureship. While at Royal Holloway, she also remained active in women’s rights movements, co-founding the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson.
Helen’s own research – on the development of reproductive systems of fungi – led to her receiving her DSc in 1907. She began a lectureship at University College, Nottingham, but by 1909 had returned to London to head the Botany department at Birkbeck College – aged just 30, she was one of the youngest applicants, and the only woman.
Helen’s predecessor at Birkbeck, a specialist in plant anatomy named David Gwynne-Vaughan, had left London to become Professor of Botany at Queen’s University Belfast. The Irish Sea between them did not prevent the two from embarking upon a romance, and they married in 1911. The Gwynne-Vaughans maintained a long-distance marriage (managing to spend six months together each year), until David’s early death from tuberculosis in 1915.