Women in Mycology

Women in Mycology

Women in Mycology

Mycology, the scientific study of fungi, has a history largely dominated by male researchers. The pivotal work of women in this field of study is grossly under- acknowledged. Yet without women, mushroom science would not be where it is today.

Women have been the safe keepers of knowledge about the natural world around us since traditional gender roles split our ancestors into hunters and gatherers.

an image of an indigenous woman wearing a red dress with white dots standing against a dark background and holding up a mushroom in her hand
Image source: unknown

Over generations, women acquired deep knowledge of how to use fungi to feed and heal their communities.

Then, the European renaissance (14th-17th century) brought along a movement to take the practice of medicine away from it's traditional roots and place it in a professional system. Traditional medical practices that came from the knowledge-keepers of medicinal herbs and fungi was outlawed. Those who continued to practice this illegal medicine were often punished with death.

This was the beginning of the witch hunts.

A black and white photograph of an older woman in a black dress with a hat fashioned as a witch hat. She stands in the middle of a road holding two large mushrooms one in each hand.
Image source: unknown

It’s estimated that tens of thousands of women were slaughtered en masse during this time. Generations of cumulative mushroom wisdom was also lost forever. Mushrooms were painted as evil, associated with witchcraft and misfortune.

The damning of mushrooms in European history was carried overseas with the colonization of the Americas where traditional healers, most often women, who used mushrooms as medicine were demonized and repressed.  

This is in stark contrast with Chinese folklore in which mushrooms were revered as life-promoting substances with beautifying, healing, and longevity promoting qualities.

How women shaped modern mycology 

As a history of repression was unfolding, dissident women, who were not allowed to study science, started to work underground. Many of the first mycologists were women.

Many of these women had no formal schooling.

Many of them had to present their findings by proxy of a man.

Many are not recognized for their significant contributions to the study of fungi.

A teenage Beatrix Potter with her pet mouse Xarifa, 1885, from Cotsen Children’s Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University - Source.

Beatrix Potter


A passionate field mycologist and better known children's author and illustrator, most famous for her book The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). 

Potter created over 350 beautiful and accurate pictures of fungi, mosses, and spores - many of which are used for species identification today. 

As a woman, she was not permitted to present her paper “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricaceae” to the Linnean Society. 

An old black and white photography of Fanny Hesse.Image source: unknown

Fanny Hesse


Fanny Hesse worked in the lab as a microbiologist and mycologist alongside her husband Walter Hesse.  

She discovered agar in 1881. Agar is a gelling agent that changed the study of microbiology and is absolutely vital for any cell culture used in the lab today.  

The discovery was attributed to her supervisor Robert Koch the infamous "father of microbiology".

An old black and white photograph of Johanna WesterdijkImage source: unknown

Johanna Westerdijk


Celebrated as one of the most important women in mycology. 

As the head of the school of plant pathologists in the Netherlands, she devoted herself to her students. Most of her students were women. 

She was the mentor of Marie Schwarz and Christine Buisman who determined the cause of Dutch elm disease to be a fungus.

An old black and white photograph of Elsie Maud Wakefield.Image source: unknown

Elsie Maud Wakefield


An extraordinary scientist who served as Head of Mycology at the Royal Botanic Gardens, UK for 40 years. 

Wakefield studied the fundamentals of fungal sexuality. By pairing colonies that developed from mushroom spores, she dedicated her studies to understanding spore compatibility.  Some species of mushrooms have tens of thousands of mating types with fertilization occurring between almost every mating type combination! 

A paper cover page with a photo of the face of María Sabina and text above that reads "María Sabina Saint mother of the mushrooms by John W. AllenImage source: unknown

María Sabina


While not a mycologist, María is an icon who contributed to the popularization of indigenous Mexican ritual use of entheogenic mushrooms among westerners. 

María was a curandera who lived in Oaxaca. Her healing sacred mushroom ceremonies, called veladas, were based on the use of psilocybin mushrooms, such as Psilocybe cyanescens.  

A photo of Giuliana Furci holding up two mushrooms in each handImage source: Giuliana Furci

Giuliana Furci

Giuliana is the first female mycologist of non-lichenized mushrooms in Chile, and the CEO and founder of the Fungi Foundation, the first NGO dedicated to Fungi in the world.

Through her work with the Foundation she has been able to promote the Fungi Kingdom and under her leadership Chile became the first country in the world to include the Fungi Kingdom in its environmental legislation.

Then and Now 

We hold these women-in-fungi in high regard for the impact and role they've played in advancing our collective fungal knowledge and advancing science.

While gender-based barriers still exist today, many women continue to be highly influential scientists, business-leaders and sacred knowledge-keepers.

The fields of science, environment, health and fungi activism wouldn't be where they are today or tomorrow without women.


*Top image of Chondrostereum purpureum by: @megmaddendesign

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