Real Lives: Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Historian feature

By Ted Green, published 7th February 2022

Real Lives: Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Our series ‘Real Lives’ seeks to put the story of the ordinary person into our great historical narrative. We are all part of the rich fabric of the communities in which we live and we are affected to greater and lesser degrees by the big events that happen on a daily basis. Sometimes we might even play a part in the big events, although our names are not recorded, while on other occasions we are witnesses to events and times which we would now consider remarkable. Sometimes our regular lives are the perfect illustration of how people live at any given time – but all our lives matter and we want to celebrate some of those lives here. If you have any people that you think might also fit this category and would like to write about them, please do contact: 

Read all Real Lives features

Dame Helen Charlotte Isabella Gwynne-Vaughan was awarded her public honour for commanding the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in France in 1917–18 but her life was much richer than that. 

She had an aristocratic background but didn’t follow the debutante route and enrolled in the botany and zoology course at King’s College London in 1899, when she was 20. She specialised in mycology (fungi) and received her doctorate in fungal genetic studies in 1907.  Most of her university time was spent at various London colleges and she became head of the botany department of Birkbeck College in 1909.  She became known as an excellent administrator as well as an academic and that, together with her aristocratic background and earlier peaceful suffragist activity, was the reason that she was asked to head up the WAAC in France...

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