Professorships and politics
Helen returned to civilian life a public figure, now supercharged by her wartime organisational experience. In 1921, she was appointed a Professor of Botany at Birkbeck, where her administrative and leadership skills enabled her to attract outstanding students and lecturers to her department. She also published extensively on the genetics of reproduction in fungi, with her 1927 study The Structure and Development of the Fungi (co-authored with B. Barnes) becoming a standard university text, and became President of the Mycological Society in 1928.
In the 1920s, Helen became more closely involved with politics, standing (unsuccessfully) as the Conservative candidate for North Camberwell during three general elections. She maintained close ties with the women’s armed services during peacetime, and in 1939 was appointed the first director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service for women officers. She remained a firm believer in the benefits of national service for women, writing in 1944:
The discipline, the comradeship, the co-operation, the concentration on the service of the community…are as important, and as necessary, for girls as for boys.
Returning to Birkbeck in 1941, Helen retired in 1944, after which she remained working full-time as honorary secretary of the London branch of the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Air Force Association until 1962. By the time of her death in 1967 at the age of 88, she was widely recognised as one of the most distinguished women of her generation in two very separate fields: mycology and the military.
So, this Fungus Day, celebrate the diversity of Britain’s fungi by attending one of the British Mycological Society’s events across the UK – and remember the remarkable life of Helen Gywnne-Vaughan.
Dr Elizabeth Dearnley teaches within the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at UCL and is Communications & Engagement Assistant for the University of London’s Leading Women campaign. You can find her on Twitter @eliza_dearnley.