WIDDOWSON, Ethel Eva 1912-2007. Nuclear physicist and beekeeping expert.

Dr Eva Crane was a brilliant scientist who simultaneously studied for three undergraduate degrees before earning a PhD in nuclear physics. She later became an international authority on bees. She grew up in East Dulwich with her sister Dr Elsie Widdowson, a dietician who helped design the British wartime diet and who was the subject of an article in our Summer 2021 issue.

Born in June 1912, Ethel Eva Widdowson was the younger daughter of Thomas Henry, known as Harry, from Grantham, and Rose, nee Elphick, a dressmaker from Dorking. Harry moved to London, became a grocer’s assistant, then co-owned a grocery business before starting his own stationery business. After WW1 the family lived in Melford Road with Rose’s mother and Eva attended Goodrich Primary School. By 1924 they had moved to a bigger house in Underhill Road as Harry’s business was prospering. Harry’s mother joined them and the Widdowson girls helped care for their grandmothers, fetching coal and reading to them. Both daughters were ferociously intelligent and cycled from Underhill Rd to attend Sydenham County Grammar School for Girls (now Sydenham School). Eva was often kept home due to illness, but despite her absences she excelled in the classroom and won many school prizes.

The family were strict Plymouth Brethren, attending meetings up to seven times a week, undertaking ‘scripture searching’ at home and writing up religious speeches. Their religious beliefs meant the girls did not go to the cinema, concerts or the theatre and in her mid-teens Eva even stopped going to tea parties because she thought they were ‘frivolous’. Though their social life outside the home was limited, the girls kept busy and would knit, sew, frame pictures, do raffia work, visit the Horniman Museum and set each other maths puzzles. They also helped pack supplies for their father’s stationery business and Eva would accompany Harry on customer visits, when she would also take the opportunity to visit the Kensington museums. Harry bought a car in 1922 after which the family holidayed around England and Ireland, hiking and attending local Brethren meetings along the way. Harry taught both his daughters to drive and later Eva and Elsie holidayed together in Elsie’s car, walking and mountain climbing around Europe, right up until WW2 broke out. 

Though encouraged to enter teaching, Eva was reluctant and wanted to do something ‘really original’. She could have studied any number of subjects but chose maths because ‘it was the hardest but also the most beautiful’. In 1930 she won a scholarship to King’s College, London, becoming one of only two female maths students; she simultaneously did a teaching degree at the Institute of Education. Like her elder sister she lived at home in East Dulwich during her studies. She took a BSc in Maths in two years, a year later she was awarded a BSc in Physics and she passed her teaching degree with distinction at the same time. One of her physics lecturers, Sir Edward Appleton, who later won the Nobel Prize for Physics, said ‘Miss Widdowson is the most brilliant woman student in Physics…since I came to King’s’. Another lecturer said she was one of the best students the university had ever had. Eva went on to study for an MSc in quantum mechanics before being awarded a PhD in nuclear physics, aged 26. 

In 1936 Eva began lecturing at Hull University, lodging with a Plymouth Brethren family and joining the Hull Fellowship. There she met a young marine insurance underwriter called James Crane and their friendship developed on walks where Jim would teach Eva to identify birds. In 1939 when war broke out, Jim joined the navy and Eva told her parents about the friendship. Jim was charmed to receive a letter from Eva’s mother which said ‘This is a few lines of welcome to express our great interest in the link formed between you and Eva. We shall be so pleased to hear from you’. The couple became engaged after two years, which Eva’s parents thought was too soon. Both Eva and Jim had doubts about their faith around this time and ended up leaving the Plymouth Brethren, which caused distress to both sets of parents, each of whom blamed their child’s partner for the split. Both families did eventually reconcile with their children.

Eva began lecturing in physics at Sheffield University in 1940 and married Jim in 1942; they had a short honeymoon before Jim returned to sea for the remainder of the war. There is a story that Elsie gave the couple a beehive as a wedding present, sparking Eva’s lifelong interest, but while a hive would have been very welcome at a time of sugar rationing, in fact Eva had owned hives since 1940 and in 1941 had written to Jim about her bees. Elsie gave them a sewing machine and an atlas as wedding gifts.

In 1945 Eva joined the Medical Research Council, studying biological physics with Professor Krebs, a future Nobel Laureate and discoverer of the eponymously named Krebs Cycle, a metabolic reaction that provides energy to cells.

Her bees were now consuming more and more of her time. She said, ‘It wasn’t the bees I was attracted to at all, I am a scientist and I wanted to know how they worked’. She became secretary of the British Beekeepers Association and wrote scholarly articles. In 1949 she founded the Bee Research Association (BRA), at a time when beekeeping was even more male dominated than her previous milieu of physics, and she helped it become a world-class repository of beekeeping expertise. 

Eva travelled to over 60 countries, often alone, to learn and share bee knowledge. When she first flew to Washington it took 11 hours via Reykjavik and she made her own sandwiches as she didn’t know if planes carried food. She visited the USSR in the 1960s and studied the varroa mite, writing a paper on how eastern bees had adapted to the parasite. When the mite later arrived in the US her research helped American beekeepers to tackle it. In a remote corner of Pakistan, she discovered horizontal hives of a kind only seen before in excavations of Ancient Greece and then found evidence that they had been introduce by a soldier of Alexander the Great. She travelled by canoe or dog sled to record the history of humans and bees from prehistoric times to the present, during which she found that the Babylonians used honey to preserve corpses and that bees were used as military weapons by the Viet Cong. Her name became synonymous with beekeeping across the world and her research on apiculture raised the standard of journals such as Bee World. Her own academic standards were high and her meticulous research is demonstrated in 300-plus papers and several of her books became standard works. 

Her crowning achievement was to be ‘the bridge between bee science and beekeeping’. She collated and disseminated bee information from all over the world (in all languages) and made it available to anyone who was interested, in a world before the internet. She also collated some 63,000 copies of academic papers and copied and distributed the information worldwide on request

In 1955 Eva and Jim moved to Chalfont St Peter where they lived for the rest of their lives; they had no children. In 1986 Eva was made an OBE and she continued to run what was now the International Bee Research Association until 1987, when she was 72, and when she was 87 she published her 700-page World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. She founded The Eva Crane Trust to advance the understanding of bees and beekeeping worldwide and left it a large legacy. She died in 2007 aged 95.

There have been bees in Dulwich for a long time as many big houses had apiaries. Doubtless Dr Crane would be delighted to know that Dulwich is still a haven for bees with hives in a wide variety of gardens, allotments and buildings. As an added bonus their honey is often sold in local shops such as Romeo Jones and the Proud Sow. Bees thrive in cities due to higher air temperatures, less use of pesticide and a wider variety of plants compared with monocultural rural fields. However, we need to encourage all pollinators, not just honeybees, and we can do this by planting pollinator friendly flowers and trees, lists of which can easily be found online. Dr Crane, who was an expert in pollen, would have said ‘Plant for pollinators!’

By Sharon O’Connor