Kathleen Drew-Baker

Today’s Wonder Women blog by Chiara from the Visitor Team celebrates Katherine Mary Drew-Baker. ‘Mother of the Sea’, this Manchester scientist has been celebrated for half a century in Japan. 

Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker (1901-1957)

If you’re a sushi lover, you owe a debt of gratitude to Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker!

Kathleen was a British phycologist, a practitioner of a branch of science that studies algae – a diverse class of primitive plants, the largest of which are known as seaweed.

utoshi_23Kathleen Drew-Baker at the University of Manchester (Image from: ar.kumanichi.com)

Born in Leigh, Lancashire, she won a Scholarship to study botany at the University of Manchester where she graduated in 1923 with first class honours and served as a lecturer in Botany and as researcher from 1922 to 1957. Drew-Baker was awarded an Ashburne Hall Research Scholarship in 1922 and, in later years, joined the staff of the Manchester Botany Department where was awarded a research fellowship in the University’s Laboratory of Cryptogamic Botany.

jrl15040100Kathleen Drew-Baker, research fellow in cryptogamic botany at the University of Manchester. (Image from: The University of Manchester Library)

A Lasting Impact in Japan

Although Drew-Baker never travelled to Japan, her academic research made a lasting contribution to the development of commercial nori (edible seaweed) production in the country.

The Japanese began cultivating nori in the 1600s. Due to a change in the farming methods, and after a series of typhoons in 1948, the seaweed bed was decimated and since next to nothing was known about the life cycle of seaweeds, no one knew how to grow new replacement plants. The nori industry tanked.

Seaweed farming had always been a risky business due to its unpredictable nature so much that the seaweed was nicknamed ‘gambler’s grass’.

Putting Sushi on the Map

In the same year however, Drew-Baker published a landmark paper that saved Japan’s nori farmers, put sushi on tables worldwide, and paved the way for international seaweed cultivation.

Drew-Baker discovered a special phase of the life circle of the Porphyra umbilicalis a North Wales and East Ireland coastline seaweed better known as laver and a nori relative. Laver was traditionally mashed into a paste, rolled in oatmeal, and fried to make laver bread, which is said to be great for breakfast, with bacon!

Startlingly Weird…

Biologically, the seaweed behind this breakfast munchie is startlingly weird.  Drew-Baker discovered that a tiny, wormlike alga was actually also a form of laver.

The large edible blades are male and female sex organs of which results it’s a minuscule offspring, known as a conchocelis, that bores into a seashell, where it develops into a filamentous crust capable of producing spores that develop into more laver blades.

The solution to the nori farmers’ problem was then oyster shells, which proved to be reliable and still is the basis of the nori industry today.

Unpaid Research Fellow

Drew-Baker did her ground-breaking research as an unpaid research fellow after that she married Manchester academic Henry Wright-Baker in 1928 and was therefore dismissed from her teaching position by the University as a consequence of a policy of not employing married women. Her husband helped her build a tidal tank in her (unfunded) laboratory, and Kathleen collected her specimens in old jam jars.

‘Mother of the Sea’

Mother-Sea-Kathleen-Mary-Drew-Baker-Seaweed-Japanese-Retro-Sushi-Owen-Davey-Illustration_1000.jpgArtwork by Owen Davey, created for the University of Manchester University. 

In Japan, Kathleen Drew-Baker has become known as the ‘Mother of the Sea‘, and each year on 14th April there is a celebration of her work. A monument to her was erected in 1963 at the Sumiyoshi shrine in Uto, Kumamoto, Japan.

utoshi_17Monument in Uto, Kumoto, Japan. (Image from: ar.kumanichi.com)

So, anyone for sushi tonight?


Fun fact about sushi: It takes 10 years of practice to become a Sushi chef. To roll a sushi perfectly, you need 10 years of training. A Sushi chef is trained extensively for 2 years about the nuances of handling Sushi. They are allowed to start working only after this training.

Chiara Ludolini



  1. Fascinating article about a fascinating scientist but would have been far better if there had been a few minutes of copy editing employed. There were passages that were almost impossible to understand due to grammar and punctuation errors.


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