KEYWORDS: Biology, Botany, Mycology, Plant Pathology
SHE THOUGHT IT
Mathilde Bensaúde was a pioneering plant pathologist from Portugal, who made significant contributions to the sciences of mycology and plant pathology. She is internationally known for her discovery of heterothallism in the Hymenomycetes, one of the major clades of the basidiomycota, a division of the kingdom Fungi. That discovery was the result of her doctoral thesis, presented at the University of Sorbonne, in 1918. Two years later, she was the only woman among the founders of the Portuguese Biology Society [“Sociedade Portuguesa de Biologia”].
Bensaúde is also renowned for establishing the services for plant quarantine and for modernising the cultivation techniques in Portugal. She became interested in plant pathology during her time as a post-doc student in the University of Wisconsin, in the United States, from 1920 to 1923. After returning to Portugal, she became the director of an experimental station in the Azores and acted as a plant pathology consultant for a brokerage society that handled the S. Miguel pineapple export. She also published several studies on plant diseases and their distribution in Portugal, usually including seed treatment recommendations.
In 1931, she was employed by the Ministry of Agriculture to found and direct the Plant Quarantine Services (“Serviços de Inspeção Patológica”), in Lisbon. During her time in the Ministry, she was responsible for the first legislation regarding sanitation and inspection measures of crops in Portugal.
Of Jewish origins, she also worked with the Portuguese division of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), acting as its President in 1958.
She is remembered today as one of the most important mycologists of her time. At the University of Wisconsin, there is a plaque in Mathilde Bensaúde’s honour on display in the Plant Pathology Library.
Born Mathilde Simon Rachel Pauline Bensaúde on 23 January 1890, she was the daughter of Alfredo Bensaúde, a wealthy engineer and founder of the School of Engineering (“Instituto Superior Técnico”) at the University of Lisbon, and Jane Gabrielle Eleonore Oulman, a Jewish Frenchwoman, who was a writer of children’s books. There is contradictory information on her place of birth, with different sources unable to confirm if she was born in Ponta Delgada or in Lisbon (see Abecassis 1990).
The Bensaúdes are a well-known traditional and wealthy Jewish family with strong historic and economic ties with the Island of S. Miguel, Azores. In the time Mathilde was born, the family had large economic interests in the export of agricultural products, such as pineapple, to the United States. The educational and cultural milieu in which Mathilde Bensaúde grew up in Lisbon was thus very rich, and the family house was a place of frequent gathering for illustrious writers, architects, and musicians in early twentieth century Lisbon (Mota 2007: 170).
Her grandfather, José Bensaúde, took great interest in her education. She early learned about agricultural problems on his tobacco plantations (Jones 1969: 1229), the same plantations which later would be inherited by her father. It was also by her father and grandfather’s initiative that she was sent to high school in Germany at the age of 14, and from there to the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, where she completed her undergraduate studies in Physical and Natural Sciences, in 1909.
In 1913, she gained some experience in laboratory work and took courses in protozoology in Lisbon, shortly before she went to the University of the Sorbonne, in Paris, in the same year. However, her studies were interrupted in 1914, by the outbreak of World War I as her father ordered her return to Lisbon. The decision made her unhappy and, after an eloquent pleading (Mota 2007: 170), her father conceded and allowed her to return to Paris in 1915. She finally completed her degree requirements at Sorbonne in the next year, in the middle of the War.
However, her notes indicated that she had lost interest in protozoology during her time in Paris. At the Sorbonne, Bensaúde met L. Matruchot, an important mycologist researcher and educator. She decided then to move on to Botany. She enthusiastically pursued her studies on fungi at the doctoral level. Her research proposal was a study of the then poorly understood cytology of the basidiomycete mycelium, particularly in its binucleate stage (Mota 2007: 171). She first published a short note on her studies in 1917, in a paper entitled “Sur la sexualité chez les champignons Basidiomycêtes” (“Sexuality in the Basidiomycete fungi”), published in the Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaire des Séances de l’Académie des Scienses. Her doctoral thesis, Recherches sur le cycle évolutif et la sexualité des Basidiomycêtes(“Research on the evolutionary cycle and sexuality of Basidiomycetes”), was completed one year later. She dedicated her thesis to her grandfather.
At that time, it was thought the group of the basidiomycetes had no sexual organs. In fact, Bensaúde’s thesis was received with some scepticism at first. Very soon, however, her results were corroborated by fellow mycologists (Jones 1969: 1229). Although Alfred Blakeslee had already discovered heterothallism in isogamic species of order Mucorales and introduced +/- terminology, Bensaúde’s thesis contributed with three main concepts to this research area, as pointed out by Mota:
- The role of clamp connections in conjugated divisions and their significance in the diagnosis of secondary mycelia;
- The establishment of the homology of the “hooks” (from ascogenous hyphae of ascomycetes) and “clamp connections” (from secondary mycelia of basidiomycetes), thus clarifying a confusing terminology;
- The concept of heterothallism in autobasidiomycetes, using Coprinus fimetarius (Mota 2007: 171)
Hans Kniep, a famous mycologist at the time, reached a similar conclusion in 1920, in Germany. Kniep was not aware of Bensaúde’s thesis, which is understandable since French books and scientific journals were not allowed in Germany during the war. But Kniep himself recognised Bensaúde as one of the top mycologists of the time, in 1922.
In 1919, Bensaúde moved to the United States. At first, she worked as an assistant in the Mycological Herbarium of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. In 1921, she became a post-doc student at the University of Wisconsin, working in the Plant Pathologist Department, headed by the famous L.R Jones. Her notes and letters indicate that she loved her time there. In one of her letters, she wrote: “the blissful happiness of the city of Madison is like an emotional oasis to me” (Jones 1969: 1229).
Bensaúde did research on several plant diseases in Wisconsin. From then on, research in plant pathology would be the main focus of her career. In 1922, she coauthored a paper with G.W. Keitt on cross inoculation with strains of Cladosporiumfrom stone fruits. In 1923, also in collaboration with Keitt, she published the first reference of Olpidiumspecies as a root parasite in American Literature.
After her time in Madison, she returned to the island of S. Miguel, Azores, to help with the family business, and to become a plant pathology consultant for the brokerage society that handled the S. Miguel pineapple export (Mota 2007)
While in the Azores, she had the opportunity to put her scientific expertise into practice. She became the director of an experiment station in the Azores, where she studied economically important diseases of beets, Easter lilies, and onion seedlings. She made field surveys and developed several control methods that were pivotal to modernise the cultivation techniques in the island. In one of her notes, she wrote: “The farmers seem to take well to me and not mind my being a woman” (apudJones 1969).
Unfortunately, she could not secure financial assistance to continue her research on the island, so she moved to Lisbon in 1928, to join the Research Institute Rocha Cabral. She published several papers during this period, namely a compilation of wheat diseases and their distribution in Portugal, including seed treatment recommendations. It was also in this period that she began her collaboration with the National Agrarian Station (Estação Agrária Nacional, today the Estação Agronómica Nacional).
In 1931, Bensaúde was invited to join the Ministry of Agriculture, specifically to found and direct the Plant Quarantine Services (“Serviços de Inspecção Fitopatológica”). Her greatest, lasting contribution during this period was the development of the expertise for treatment and prevention of plant diseases in Portugal (Jones 1969). But she had faced obstacles in the process: early during the campaigns to establish clean seed in north-eastern Portugal, the local population would ring the church bells to announce her arrival in grim terms since she was often the bearer of bad news as to the quality of the potatoes (especially black wart disease). Quite the opposite situation she had faced back in the Azores, as described above. But after her efforts to help the people better their lives, their attitudes changed radically, and she became welcome (Mota 2007: 175). During her nine years as head of the Plant Quarantine Service, Bensaúde implemented a series of regulations that were pivotal to establishing good sanitation measures for potatoes as well as for many other crops.
She remained with the Ministry until her mother’s death, when she returned to the Azores to care for her ageing father. However, it certainly took a part in her decision the fact that she quite often collided in the Ministry with organisational bureaucracy and inefficiency. She remained on the island of S. Miguel until her father’s death, in 1942. She then resumed her career and renewed her research.
She went back to the United States in 1942, where she worked on ring rot of potato in Wisconsin and New York for two years. The disease became her scientific interest for the rest of her life. In 1946, she published a paper clarifying the main issues of the disease to the scientific community. She would return to Wisconsin for two more years, from 1954 to 1956.
Back to Portugal, Bensaúde was fundamental in establishing the internationally known coffee rust centre in Oeiras, directed by Branquinho d’Oliveira. The centre received financial help from the US foreign aid programme since Portugal was especially suited to its major project: the study of rust on coffee. Since coffee is not grown in Portugal, because of latitude and temperature, it was a safe place to assemble collections of the fungus from around the world, to define races, and assay for disease resistance, without the risk of spreading the disease to a commercial crop.
Bensaúde was married for a short time in 1935. It was said to be a “marriage of convenience”. She married a German Jew and helped him to legally leave Nazi Germany. He was 10 years younger than Bensaúde. They married in the almond orchards of Algarve. Every year, on the anniversary of their wedding, he sent her a bouquet of flowers. The Bensaúdes are a Jewish family, and Mathilde Bensaúde was active in that regard as well: she worked with the Portuguese division of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization), acting as its President in 1958.
SHE SAID IT
… the farmers seem to take well to me and not mind my being a woman.
Mathilde Bensaúde, 1920s, north of Portugal, during the seed potato campaign. Cited in Mota, Manuel M. (2007), “Mathilde Bensaúde (1890-1969): Portugal’s Pioneer Plant Pathologist”, in Jean Beagle Ristaino (ed.), Pioneering Women in Plant Pathologyed, St. Paul, APS Press, p.169.
THEY SAID IT
The role of the scientists today is that of a person who not only utilises creative genius to open up new realms, but who must also interpret results to the listening public so that new knowledge may be used to satisfy the needs of people. Such was the part of this remarkable woman. She was extraordinarily sensitive to the people around her, great in her understanding, and endowed with a vision for improvement of economic conditions. She lived during a time before the most serious need of communication between scientists and public became evident, but she foresaw it and her efforts had profound influence on the economy of her country. The disciplined mind which early worked out some features in the cytological behaviour of fungi transferred its genius to making knowledge available.
Edith Seymour Jones.
[My cousin was] very progressive for her time, she participated in several feminist conferences and in her conversations with us she always defended the cause of women.
Daniel Sampaio, A Razão dos Avós. Colab. Eulália Barros. Lisboa: Caminho, 2012.
Exhibition And Yet, They Move! Women and Science [E contudo, elas movem-se! Mulheres e Ciência], Rectorate of the University of Porto, Portugal, 10-29 september, 2019. [an illustration of Mathilde Bensaúde by Miguel Praça is displayed at the exhibition]
E contudo, elas movem-se! Mulheres e Ciência (com poemas) (2019), Org. Ana Luísa Amaral e Marinela Freitas. Porto: U.Porto Edições [the book contains a short bio on Mathilde Bensaúde, as well as an illustration by Miguel Praça].
WORKS BY MATHILDE BENSAÚDE
Bensaúde, Mathilde (1917), “Sur la sexualité chez les champignons Basidiomycêtes, Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaire des Séances de l’Académie des Scienses, 165, 286-288.
Bensaúde, Mathilde (1918), Recherches sur le cycle évolutif et la sexualité des Basidiomycêtes, Doctoral Thesis, Université de Paris, Sorbonne, Imprimerie Nemourienne, Nemours, France.
Bensaúde, Mathilde (1923), “A species of Olpidiumparasitic in the roots of tomato, tobacco and cabbage”, Phytopathology, n.º 13, 451-454.
Jones, Edith Seymour (1972), “Mathilde Bensaúde, 1890-1969”, Phytopathology, November, vol. 62, n.º 11, p.1229.
Mota, Manuel M. (2007), “Mathilde Bensaúde (1890-1969): Portugal’s Pioneer Plant Pathologist”, in Pioneering Women in Plant Pathology[ed. Jean Beagle Ristaino], St. Paul, APS Press, pp.169-177.
Dias, Fátima Sequeira (2009), “Matilde Bensaúde”, in Dicionário do Judaísmo Português[ed. Lúcia Liba Mucznbik at al], Lisboa, Editorial Presença, p.102.
Abecassis, José Maria (1990), Genealogia Hebraica, Portugal e Gilbratar, Séculos XVII a XX, Lisboa, Livraria Ferin, vol. II, “Bensaúde”, §5, N6, pp.211-212.