Obituary: Elizabeth Cutter BSc, PhD, DSc, FRSE, professor of botany

Elizabeth Cutter BSc, PhD, DSc, FRSE, professor of botany. Born: 9 August, 1929, in Edinburgh. Died: 23 October, 2010 in Melrose, aged 81.

Elizabeth Cutter was a pioneering career woman who devoted her life to science, reaching the pinnacle of academia as an internationally-renowned botanist.

So rare was her achievement - she held two professorships, one on each side of the Atlantic by the 1970s - that when she arrived at a new office the cleaner welcomed her with the words: "Good morning, sir."

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At the time, only six of the 225-plus professors on the staff of Manchester University, where she held the Chair of Botany, were women. And it was a mark of her exceptional gift for teaching and research that eight of her students went on to become professors in Canada, New Zealand and in the USA, where her two volumes on plant anatomy were widely adopted as undergraduate text.

Beyond academic life she was an accomplished photographer and angler, loyal friend and hospital volunteer in the Borders. And, despite having no living relatives, she enjoyed the company of a devoted "family" of former students and colleagues, all of whom flourished under her influence.

She was born in Edinburgh, the only daughter of Roy and Alix Cutter. Her parents met while travelling by boat to the Sudan, where her father was a judge in the colonial civil service. They remained there until 1936 while their daughter was cared for in Edinburgh by three maiden aunts.

After Rothesay House girls' boarding school, where she was head girl, she went to St Andrew's University, gaining a first class honours degree in botany in 1951. Three years later she completed her PhD in botany at the University of Manchester, which led to a 40-year friendship with her PhD supervisor, Professor Claude Wardlaw. She would later be promoted to the Chair of Botany, vacated on his retirement.

Immediately after obtaining her PhD she was appointed assistant lecturer at Manchester, something that would only be possible today after several years' post-doctoral work. "By modern standards, Elizabeth was an academic prodigy," said her friend Prof Tony Trinci.

She then spent the years from 1955 to 1964 in the Department of Botany in Manchester until being headhunted by the University of California at Davis to replace the eminent plant anatomist, Katherine Esau. Four years later she was promoted to professor but resigned the post in 1972 to return to the UK to care for her mother.

She had already been awarded a DSc by St Andrews and elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And though her move back to the UK was a backward step professionally, it displayed her great sense of duty to her mother, who did not want to move to California.She accepted a senior lectureship at Manchester and seven years later was promoted to the George Harrison Chair of Botany, previously held by her friend Prof Wardlaw who, despite their lengthy personal and scientific friendship, she could never bring herself to address by his first name, always referring to him as "Prof".

During her tenure as Head of Botany drastic cuts in university funding, following the Conservative election victory in 1979, made it impossible for her to regain the department's earlier reputation for research and in 1986 it merged with ten other departments to become part of the School of Biological Sciences.

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Despite her fears for her own department, she loyally supported those leading the school and led a root and branch revision of the undergraduate curriculum, resulting in 18 new modular-based BSc biological sciences degrees. Although very modest, she was globally recognised for her work, publishing more than 50 research papers, including four in Nature and two in Science, the world's most highly-regarded scientific journals. One of her most important pieces of research demonstrated in precise detail how hairs develop on the surface of the roots.

She also held office in several societies including the Botanical Society of America, the Linnean Society of London, the International Society of Plant Morphologists and the Society for Experimental Biology.

"Besides being an excellent researcher, Elizabeth was a very good teacher and a first-rate field botanist," said Prof Trinci. "She led and participated in many undergraduate field trips. And even in retirement her holidays were spent seeking out plants. Each year, with a group of friends, she went to the alpine meadows around Wengen in Switzerland. I have never met anyone who was so enthusiastic about plants and plant biology."

Cutter also enjoyed entertaining her graduate students at home in Stockport at Christmas but, despite having an excellent reputation as a scientist, she wasn't quite so competent with domestic appliances. One year she emerged from the kitchen announcing that she had cut her finger in the blender while making the brandy butter. She asked her guests if they would mind if still she served up the brandy butter. They reportedly devoured the delicacy.

Retiring to Gattonside near Melrose, she became president of the Botanical Society of Scotland, giving four presidential lectures around the country and keeping in touch with colleagues running field courses at Perthshire's Kindrogan Field Centre.

She also enjoyed angling on Skye, was secretary of her local WRI, volunteered in the local hospital's WRVS tea room and was a superb photographer. An associate member of the Royal Photographic Society and a member of Galashiels Camera Club, she developed and printed her own work in a dark room at home and often exhibited.Around the world, the image retained by her friends and scientific family is of a remarkable woman whose science, integrity, loyalty and great kindness influenced the careers and lives of so many.