Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor finalist – Phyllis Clinch, tamer of viruses

5 Jul 2013

Botanist Phyllis Clinch (second from right). Photo via 'Lab Coats and Lace'

Botanist Phyllis Clinch paved the way for new disease-resistant crop varieties and effective procedures for controlling plant diseases by investigating the viruses that can decimate commercial crops.

Clinch was born on 12 September 1901 and lived with her family in Rathmines, Dublin. She attended the Loreto school and then University College Dublin (UCD). She graduated with a first-class honours degree in chemistry and botany in 1923, gained first place in her year and won a post-graduate scholarship.

By 1924, Clinch had gained an MSc degree by thesis and been awarded a research fellowship by Dublin County Council.

Next came a PhD in 1928 on the metabolism of conifer leaves. Her research was of such a high standard that she published five papers jointly with her supervisor, professor of botany Joseph Doyle, from 1926-1928.

Her first post-doctoral position was as assistant to the professor of botany in Galway, but before taking the job she was given an opportunity to study cytology (the structure and functions of cells), under Prof Alexandre Guilliermond in Paris.

Clinch returned to Galway in late 1928 and to Dublin in 1929 to join research on plant viruses starting at the Albert Agricultural College.

Clinch worked there on plant virus diseases for 20 years. She then transferred to UCD’s botany department as an assistant lecturer and was appointed to a lectureship the following year.  

The virus research at Albert Agricultural College was of an internationally high standard and Clinch earned a worldwide reputation as an expert in the field. She published research in the journal Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society, in a series of nine papers between 1932 and 1949, some with her colleague J B Loughnane and Prof Paul A Murphy.

She also published in the Department of Agriculture’s Éire journal and in one of the most prestigious international scientific journals, Nature.

In 1943, she was awarded a DSc on the strength of her published body of work, the highest degree a scientist can be awarded.

Having cracked the enigma of potato diseases, Clinch turned her attention to viruses of tomatoes and sugar beets, while responding to requests from Department of Agriculture officials to identify plant disease agents and make recommendations for their control.

In 1949, she became one of the first women elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA). She became a member of the RIA’s council in 1973 and was a vice-president from 1975-1977.

In 1961, the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) awarded her the Boyle Medal for her scientific work and publications. She is the only woman yet to receive this medal.

That same year, she became the first woman professor of botany at UCD, and indeed the only one so far.

Clinch was professor of botany at UCD until 1973, when she retired. In 1977, she was elected as a vice-president of the RDS, and as a member of the board of visitors to the National Museum of Ireland.

She died on 19 October 1984.

To vote for Clinch as Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor, click here.

Read about the other finalists in our Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor competition:

Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli

Lilian Bland

Agnes Clerke

Margaret Lindsay Huggins

Cynthia Longfield

Kathleen Lonsdale

Annie Maunder

Dorothy Stopford Price

Alicia Boole Stott

With thanks to Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland for providing the material for this profile from her book Lab Coats and Lace (2009).

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths