We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
English, Mary Phyllis (1919–2009), mycologist and historian, was born on 10 April 1919 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, the eldest child of Marcus Claude English (1886–1958), rubber planter, and his wife, Gladys Nellie, née Cubitt (1891–1979). In 1926 she was sent back to England to be educated. Following a short period of home schooling in the New Forest she was enrolled at St Stephen's College, Folkestone. In 1937 she gained a place to read botany at King's College, London. Evacuated to Bristol with her fellow students at the beginning of the Second World War, she graduated with honours in 1941. She was then directed to work as a chemist for the War Agricultural Advisory Centre in Bristol. During this period she studied in her spare time, obtaining an MSc in mycology from the University of London in 1943. Determined to pursue a career as a mycologist, she took a position at the East Malling Research Station in Kent to study fungal diseases in apple orchards. Over the next few years she held a series of short-term appointments before joining British Drug Houses Ltd in London to investigate the fermentation of malt extract by the osmophilic yeast, Saccharomyces rouxii. This led to her first brief publication, in Nature, in 1951.

In 1954 Robert Warin, a consultant dermatologist, and Kenneth Cooper, professor of bacteriology, established a new laboratory specializing in fungal diseases of humans at the United Bristol Hospitals. Their decision to appoint Mary English to head this unit provided her with a rare opportunity to enter the field. The diagnostic service that she established at the Bristol General Hospital eventually came to serve many of the hospitals in the south-west and south of England, and was also used by many general practitioners. In 1972 she and her unit were absorbed into the pathology department at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where she remained until her retirement in 1980. The successful establishment of the unit was an achievement in which force of character played an important part alongside scientific excellence.

As a highly specialized scientist attempting to set up a new laboratory in a hierarchical, male-dominated hospital environment English faced opposition and misunderstanding. Determined that medical mycologists should be accorded the same status as mycologists in other fields, she persisted in using the dining and common rooms set aside for the medical staff of the hospital. When persuaded to obtain a DSc from the University of Bristol for her research contributions in 1970 she did so, she declared, to ensure that her medical colleagues would have to stop treating her like a laboratory technician. Shortly thereafter she was invited to join the hospital medical committee of the United Bristol Hospitals and granted the title of consultant mycologist, a singular honour for a clinical scientist at that time.

English was a meticulous researcher who made significant contributions to the epidemiology of tinea pedis or ‘athlete's foot’ and the zoophilic dermatophytoses, infections acquired from companion, farm, and wild animals. Her published work also included important papers on the role of fungi in human nail infections. In her work on human dermatophytes originating in animals, she showed that Trichophyton erinacei, first described in New Zealand, was common in British hedgehogs, from which it could spread to dogs and their owners. She also established that another dermatophyte, Microsporum persicolor, previously known only from human scalp infections, was native to the short-tailed field vole and wood mouse.

In 1980 English published her first book. Medical Mycology was one of a series of Studies in Biology sponsored by the Institute of Biology. However, by this time she had become fascinated by the world of Victorian biological science, and following her retirement she embarked on a second career as a writer of scientific and social history, with notable biographies of the eminent naturalists Edwin Lankester (1990) and Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (1987), a founder of the British Mycological Society, who was also one of her forebears. Her final book, written with Graham Ayliffe, was Hospital Infection: from Miasmas to MRSA (2003), a wide-ranging history of the rise, fall, and re-emergence of nosocomial infections, and the development of medical microbiology and infection control. It proved timely when the spread of ‘superbugs’ was posing major problems in healthcare facilities worldwide. Its merit was recognized in 2004 by the Society of Authors and Royal Society of Medicine award for the best new medical history book.

English was a member of the British Mycological Society for over sixty years. She served twice on its council, and for many years rarely missed an autumn foray. In the 1950s and early 1960s she was an active participant in the annual two-day residential meetings of the Medical Research Council's medical mycology committee, to which those known to be working on some aspect of medical or veterinary mycology were invited. In 1965 she was a founder member of its successor, the British Society for Mycopathology (later the British Society for Medical Mycology). In 1959 and 1973 she served as the local organizer of these annual meetings, and following her retirement she was elected an honorary member of the society.

‘My career was shaped by the war’, English observed towards the end of her life. ‘The war meant it became acceptable for women to take scientific jobs’ (The Guardian, 26 Jan 2010). It also played a part in shaping her socialist beliefs. During wartime evacuation to Bristol, where she carried out fire-watching duties with her fellow students, she witnessed scenes of social deprivation that made a profound and lasting impression. She welcomed the election of the Labour government in 1945 and was a lifelong supporter of the National Health Service.

Having lived in Bristol for most of her life English spent her last few years at Whitefriars care home, in Stamford, Lincolnshire (near her brother Marcus), where she died on 11 October 2009. Following cremation her ashes were interred in her sister Susan's grave in Stamford. She never married.

David W. Warnock

Sources  

BSMM News (Dec 2009), 3–5 · The Guardian (26 Jan 2010) · Mycologist News (2010), 2.12–13 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, c.1960, repro. in The Guardian (26 Jan 2010)

Wealth at death  

£911,762: probate, 17 May 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales