|Fields botany and ecology||Died May 1917|
|Alma mater University College London|
Sarah Martha Baker D.Sc. F.L.S. (1887–1917) was an English botanist and ecologist who is remembered for her studies of brown seaweeds and zonation patterns on the seashore.
Born in London on 4 June 1887, she was the daughter of Martha Braithwaite Baker and George Samuel Baker and grew up in a Quaker family with two younger brothers, George and Bevan. As well as their main London home the family had a country house at Mersea Island where Baker first took an interest in seaweed. She is said to have been interested in plants and flowers from an early age. Another interest was art and she studied briefly at the Slade School of Art before moving into science. That training meant she never produced a poor quality scientific illustration.
Education and career
Baker began studying at University College London in 1906, where one of her teachers was the chemist Sir William Ramsay, and received a Bachelor of Science degree with first class honours in 1909. After a short time in Munich in 1910, she returned to research in botanical chemistry in London. She was generally described as energetic and very hard-working.
In 1912 she was chosen for the Quain Studentship in Botany accompanied by a lectureship at University College. This placed her in an enlightened environment by the standards of the early 20th century. Not only had University College been the first academic institution in the UK to admit female students, but from 1890 its Department of Botany under Professor F.W.Oliver was quite progressive. It granted several doctorates in botany to women, employed a reasonable number of female staff and gave the prestigious Quain award to women as often as to men. In 1913 Baker received her doctorate for work on the effect of formaldehyde on living plants, and in 1914 was elected a fellow of the Linnaean Society. In 1916 she was elected to the Council of the British Ecological Society.
Baker belonged to a pioneering era in ecology when researchers began to use experimentation to take ecology beyond being merely descriptive. She was not the only one to think the shore provided good opportunities for ecological study. Baker's work on seaweed zoning explored the tendency for different types to thrive at different distances from the high tide mark. She decided to test whether "differential tolerance to desiccation stress was what determines zonation in marine algae". She undertook the laborious work of measuring distances on the shore, collecting specimens, putting them in numerous jars and "var[ying] their exposure to drying". Her conclusions suggested that competition between the various fucaceae was important. This idea went out of fashion for some time but is now accepted as part of the explanation for zonation. One writer has even called her "prophetic". When she began to look at the effects of formaldehyde on living plants her experimental methods became more complex and sophisticated. She went on studying photosynthesis and had intended to do more in that field had she not died young.
Alongside her scientific work she did voluntary work for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and is credited with an inspirational quotation used on the ‘Botanists’ panel of a Quaker tapestry which comes from an obituary report of her Sunday school students’ memories of her. When the First World War began she joined University College’s Voluntary Aid Detachment.
End of life
She died on 29 May 1917 just before reaching her 30th birthday. The Times claimed that "her death was due to overwork". A Sarah M. Baker Memorial Prize was established at University College London in 1919 and is still awarded today.
The standard author abbreviation S.M.Baker is used to indicate this individual as the author when citing a botanical name.
On Sarah Baker's mother’s Braithwaite side of the family, there was a strong tradition of active Quaker involvement and ministry including her grandmother, grandfather and aunt. Her Canadian-born father and several relatives were involved in engineering and manufacturing.