Research Scientist at the Laboratory of Physiology, 1894-1904
Dr Florence Buchanan read Zoology at University College London, graduating in 1890, having published 2 papers as an undergraduate. She then studied marine polychaete worms with Ray Lankaster, discovering several new species. In 1894, she moved to Oxford to work as a research assistant with John Burdon-Sanderson on the electrical responses of muscle.
When Burdon-Sanderson left in 1904, Dr Buchanan moved to the University Museum of Natural History, where she set up her own lab funded by grants from The Royal Society. She was especially interested in the frequency of the heart rate, and how it varied in different species, in hibernating animals and during exercise. Among her many contributions, she provided data for August Krogh, who wrote “Miss Buchanan has shown us the very great kindness to take some electrocardiograms on subjects starting work on a stationary tricycle”. One of her subjects was the famous Oxford respiratory physiologist CG Douglas, who apparently was ‘not at all heated’ by the exercise. Unfortunately, despite providing data, Dr Buchanan does not appear as an author on the paper, something that would certainly happen now.
Dr Buchanan was the first woman to attend a meeting of The Physiological Society in 1896. In 1912, after she had been going to meetings of The Society for 16 years, John Scott Haldane proposed her for membership, making her the first woman proposed to become a member of The Physiological Society. She received 50 signatures of support from renowned scientists including Haldane, William Osler (considered the father of modern medicine and Regius Professor at Oxford), CG Douglas, Sir Charles Sherrington (Nobel Laureate and Waynflete Professor of Physiology), AV Hill and August Waller (recorded the first ECG). Despite some significant opposition, notably from Ernst Starling, of Starling’s Law of the heart frame, a membership ballot resulted in overwhelming support for women and in July 1915 the first 6 women were admitted, Dr Buchanan being one of them. By then, she had given at least 10 communications to the Society, published 2 papers in the Journal of Physiology and 3 in what is now called Experimental Physiology.
The University Oxford never recognised Dr Buchanan. In fact, it did not award women MAs or PhDs until 1920, which is what makes this Centenary Academic Year from Michaelmas Term 2020 – Trinity Term 2021 so special. However, at the time, University College was arguably more progressive and awarded Dr Buchanan a DSc in 1902.
Florence Buchanan is now widely renowned for her discoveries on the transmission of reflex impulses in mammals, birds and reptiles, and the neural control of the heartbeat during exercise. In March 2021, DPAG honoured her scientific legacy with a new blue plaque from The Physiological Society pride of place outside the Sherrington Building entrance, opposite the blue plaque honouring Sir Charles Sherrington.
Watch '100 years of women in physiology' video commissioned by DPAG in 2017, which opens with an account of Dr Florence Buchanan's work.
If you have a verified photograph of Dr Buchanan, please contact DPAG Communications.