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Informal Physiology classes (1896-99), Research Scientist and Laboratory Technician (1897-1907), Pioneer in respiration research, Pike’s Peak (1911)

Sepia photograph of Mabel Purefoy Fitzgerald examining a scientific sample in a pipette.Mabel FitzGerald attended Physiology classes informally under Gustav Mann from 1896-99. She gained top marks in the examinations, but these could not count towards a degree because women could not be officially enrolled. She was the first female student in the medical school at the University of Oxford. In 1897, FitzGerald started her first research position with Francis Gotch and Gustav Mann at the Laboratory of Physiology, where she developed an expertise in histology. Her histological work on tissue response at vaccination sites was included in a manuscript published by Mann in 1899. In 1901, she attended her first scientific presentation at the inauguration of Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen alongside future Nobel prize winners Paul Ehrlich and Robert Koch. In 1905 she became Laboratory Technician to John Scott Haldane, working together on measuring carbon dioxide tension in the human lung, publishing a paper together "The normal alveolar carbonic acid pressure in man" (Journal of Physiology, 32, 1905). In 1906, FitzGerald had her first paper as a sole author "An investigation into the structure of the lumbo-sacral-coccygeal cord of the Macaque monkey (Macacus sinicus)" (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, volume 78). She came to the attention of Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at the time, who recommended her for a Rockerfeller Travelling Fellowship, which she won in 1907. This grant took her to New York to develop methods of inducing sporulation in bacterial cultures. She later transferred to the University of Toronto where, with AB Macallum, found the first in vivo evidence of the origin of HCl in the parietal cells of the gastric mucosa. She returned to Oxford and in 1911, became part of the Laboratory of Physiology's landmark expedition to Pike’s Peak, Colorado, USA, led by Haldane and C. G Douglas, to examine the effects of low atmospheric pressure on respiration, the only woman on the trip. Their discoveries revolutionised current ideas about respiration. FitzGerald made detailed physiological measurements of the populations living at different altitudes throughout the state, and perhaps her greatest scientific accomplishment was to demonstrate, over the long term, that it is oxygen, and not carbon dioxide, that determines how hard we breathe and sets the haemoglobin concentration in our blood. 

Mabel FitzGerald pictured in a wheelchair shaking hands with the ChancellorMabel FitzGerald was all but forgotten in the study of human acclimatisation to high altitude for many years. In 1961, on the centenary of Haldane's birth, her work was rediscovered. With the help of the then Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir Richard Doll, the University of Oxford finally bestowed an honorary Master of Arts degree on Mabel FitzGerald in 1972 – the first centenarian to receive one. Sir Richard wrote that her example first convinced Oxford “that women can do as well as men”. On bestowing the degree, the then Vice Chancellor, Alan Bullock, acknowledged it had come three-quarters of a century too late.

Based on her pioneering work in Colorado, Mabel FitzGerald became only the second female member of the American Physiological Society in 1913, but it was not until 1973 that she was made an honorary member of the British Physiological Society. She was then the American Physiological Society’s oldest living member.

In 2015, in connection with the Athena SWAN Award (then Bronze), the Department started a new annual lecture series to be held in honour of Mabel FitzGerald. Read more about the Mabel FitzGerald Prize Lecture Series.

Read "The science and sagacity of Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald: A woman who went to great heights to reach her goals" on The Physiological Society website.