Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker
The cultivation of a species of red seaweed called nori in Japan began in the 1600s but was almost destroyed in the 1940s after a series of typhoons decimated the sea beds that grew the algae.
It was a phycologist half-way around the world, Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker that would uncover the life cycle of a similar species that would help a Japanese scientist to develop a plan to save nori farms. Dr. Drew-Baker’s research was focused on a nori relative called laver that was commonly found along the west coast of Britain and the east coast of Ireland and used to make laverbread a combination of the seaweed and oatmeal that was fried and eaten mostly as a breakfast food.
While the nori farms in Japan were struggling to recover and grow any kind of harvest, a Japanese phycologist read Drew-Baker’s paper published in 1949 that explained the unexpected life cycle of the laver plants. It had been thought that tiny wormlike alga that was found with the large leaf-like blades of laver was a different species, but in reality it was a different form of the plant. The large edible blades are the sex organs of the algae, some male, some female and when the two get together they produce minuscule offspring, called conchocelis. These alga will bore into a seashell and develop into a pinkish crust that can produce spores which in turn make more laver blades. By adapting this research slightly the Japanese nori farmers were able to rebuild their seaweed beds into what is now a $2 billion industry.
While her professional career was somewhat short, spanning only 33 years, she collected almost 3,000 herbarium samples, authored 27 papers, and was co-founder of the British Phycological Society. Drew-Baker served as the organization’s first elected president. And while she isn’t well known in her home country she is known as the “Mother of the Sea” in Japan where a memorial park in her honor was built in Uzuchi Sumiyoshi-hill of the Kumamoto Prefecture and a special “Drew festival” is held in her honor every year in Osaka.
Written by Angela Goad