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Women’s History Month Spotlight: Cynthia Westcott, The Plant Doctor

Spotlight On Women’s History Month

The 1920s and ’30s saw a great leap forward for women’s education beyond primary school. Women had won the right to vote and were no longer restricted by corsets. The world was opening up for women with drive and ambition, well, at least slightly. Cynthia Westcott, our next woman of impact in the world of plants, was one of those ambitious women and belongs in Women’s History.

Who Was Cynthia Westcott

Cynthia Westcott (June 29, 1898 – March 22, 1983) was born in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, in the 20th century. Her family owned two farms, and from a young age, she became enamored by nature, spending much of her youth roaming wild hills and pastures. Cynthia received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College in 1920 and her Ph.D. in plant pathology from Cornell in 1932. She went on to become a research assistant on the university’s plant pathology staff. Here she learned a great deal and gained advantages over some plant pathologists, ironically enough, because she was a woman.

Cynthia Westcott, The Only Woman

As a research assistant in the plant pathology lab, Cynthia was the only woman among 40 men. She was given a list of gender-specific tasks, including making tea or coffee, preparing picnic lunches for research outings, and organizing the materials room. That last task was her ticket to building a foundation for the rest of her life’s work. She was responsible for preparing and cataloging materials for all of the lab’s experiments and student’s classes. She would mimeograph papers for courses on the history of many plant diseases and prepare slides representing all kinds of plant pathogens. Cynthia was exposed to more information in that materials room than the average student would ever see, and she loved it.

Cynthia Westcott, The Plant Doctor

In 1933, the forward-thinking Westcott partnered with a college friend to open the nation’s first doctor’s practice for plants. She would make house calls, diagnose problems and treat ornamental plants. As knowledge of her expertise grew, Cynthia was called to give numerous lectures. During World War II, she lectured on pest control for victory gardens. After the war, she conducted garden courses for Macy’s and Bamberger’s Department stores. Also, Cynthia would go on to publish several articles and books on horticulture and plant disease. Her first book, The Plant Doctor (1937), was so popular that this became her title until she died in 1983. In 1950 she published Westcott’s Plant Disease Handbook in its 6th edition and can still be purchased today.

In 1943, the Department of Agriculture was called upon to fight against azalea petal blight. This devastating disease was sweeping across the southern states and proving economically detrimental. After identifying the problem, she not only developed a chemical treatment to save the azalea blooms but was instrumental in educating the public on how to administer the remedy. With this treatment, she became one of the first plant pathologists to control the disease with the new class of fungicides, disodium ethylene bisdithiocarbamates, now known worldwide as Zineb and Maneb.

Cynthia Westcott, Never Stop Experimenting

During all of her travels, Cynthia Westcott was forever collecting specimens to study. She never stopped experimenting. She felt that a basic ingredient of a good plant pathologist is recognizing how to learn from plants. Her expertise in diseases of roses and other ornamentals was so highly regarded that in 1975, at the American Rose Society’s National Convention, the Jackson and Perkins Company named a hybrid tea rose “Cynthia” in her honor.

Cynthia Westcott once said, “I think there has not been a day in all the years I have been working in gardens when plants have not taught me something.”

by Susan O’Hara, Graphics Department

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. Cynthia was my mother’s aunt so I met her a few times in my life. I knew she was known as the Rose Doctor and I think I have all of her books. Once we visited the
    Westcott home in North Attleboro when I was very young and my only memory was how terrible barns smelled. I was just given a book by Penelope Lively entitled Life in the Garden. I no longer have a big garden, but I have enough of a garden and lots of pots so I stay very busy with what I have. Gardening gives me great peace mind.I also go on as many garden tours as I can. Penelope’s book mentions the love of gardening coming down through generations. I know my mother loved her garden and my daughter loves to garden. One of my granddaughters is a chef, a gardener and a potter so the love of a garden continues through my family. My son has a big vegetable garden. I decided to look up Cynthia when I thought about my family interest in gardening. This is a wonderful article and I am proud of all she did for the gardening world. I will send this beautiful article to my children and sisters. Thanks for such a lovely article.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment Barbara. I enjoyed researching women in gardening, though I must say, they did not get much press in their day. Your family sounds like its roots are deeply planted in the garden which is wonderful. Something tells me that Cynthia would have been a great person to sit down with and have tea. It sound like you can be very proud of all your generations.

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