Margaret Holden ( c1922 - 1998)

Botanist, biochemist, local historian

Margaret Holden, 1991
Gavin Ross
Margaret with Mildred Ashford
G Ross, 1991

An appreciation of a founder member of Harpenden Local History Society drawn from Newsletter 77 (September 1998) and the History of the Harpenden Horticultural Society (1946-1996) (LHS archives BF 7.2c)

Margaret Holden was perhaps destined to be a botanist from her earliest years. As she learned to speak, her father included in his infant daughter’s vocabulary the Latin names of plants; it was not until much later that she learned their common names. He was a nurseryman and as a little girl she enjoyed accompanying him, with his trade stand, to shows ranging from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)┬áto those run locally in their home town of Formby in Lancashire. She sometimes exhibited wild flowers herself, only to find her carefully selected specimens losing to huge bunches indiscriminately thrust into buckets or large vases.

Later she studied botany at University College in London, continuing in Bangor, north Wales, where it was evacuated during the war. She returned to London eventually to complete her studies at the Lister Institute of Medicine and, 18 months later, on 1 February 1944, she took a position at Rothamsted Experimental Station in the Biochemistry Department.

After about nine years at Rothamsted, Margaret became restless and, eager to widen her horizons, agreed to go to Ghana in west Africa to study the changes in fermenting cocoa beans that affect flavour and to investigate swollen shoot, a virus disease infecting cocoa. It was a rewarding period in her life from the point of view of work. She also recalled the pleasant life-styles she and her colleagues enjoyed, living independently in spacious, tropical bungalows.

Refreshed after her secondment, she returned to Rothamsted to work on the breakdown of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. In her last years there, before she took early retirement in 1980, she applied her biochemical skills to work on root diseases of wheat.

A very active retirement

Margaret had many interests including the study of fungi, and she became a mycologist with national recognition. For many years she was Foray Secretary for the British Mycological Society and Editor of its Bulletin. She was an authority on the fungi of Hertfordshire and was Recorder for the Hertfordshire Natural History Society. She was especially interested in the species to be found on the Rothamsted Manor lawns and in the nearby woods which she had recorded for over forty years.

A keen gardener, Margaret was an active member of Harpenden Horticultural Society. In 1959 she gave a talk on ‘Gardens in West Africa’. In 1962, when it was felt that more ladies should be on the Committee, Margaret was elected and served for 11 years. Along with her friend and colleague Joan Moore, she introduced and ran bring and buy stalls at shows, which proved an invaluable source of revenue.

She joined the WEA classes on the History of Wheathampstead and Harpenden in 1970 and contributed to the research which resulted in the booklets published between 1973 and 2000. She was a founder member of the Local History Society and served on the Committee from 1975-79. She gave a number of talks to Society meetings, including a history of Rothamsted Experimental Station. Extracts from her diaries from 1945 were published in Newsletters.

Mildred Ashford commented that her energy and enthusiasm would be greatly missed.

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