Professor Winifred Cullis C B E

Winifred Cullis by Alice Burton[1]
Winifred Clara Cullis, 57, (1875-1956), physiologist and educationalist, was the first woman to hold a professional chair at a medical school. She was also the chair of this dinner and presented Lady Rhondda with her portrait. She presumably approved of what she saw, as six years later Alice Burton painted her portrait.[2]  Winifred was a Director of Time and Tide since 1924 and in 1930 was interviewed by the magazine in a seemingly contrived way, in a series of articles on Literary Criticism, promoting in the process the critical work of Rebecca West and of Sylvia Lynd. Winifred was a regular radio presenter and a champion of women’s rights.[3] [4]


Winifred shares the distinction with Lady Rhondda of being one of the only two people at the dinner we know who they were seated beside, in Winifred’s case being to the left of Lady Rhondda and to the right of Lord Camrose. No further speculation required.


Apart from enjoying the company, she had to chair the dinner, keep the speakers to their allotted five minutes, to make a speech herself and to present the portrait to Lady Rhondda. I doubt if any of that will have been much of a challenge, except  keeping the speakers to time (they did go on at length). Doubtless an enjoyable evening for her amongst friends.


Winifred was born was born in Stroud Road, South Hamlet, Gloucester, on 2nd June 1875, the fifth of six children of Louisa Cullis née Corbett, daughter of Mary and John Corbett, Clerk of Coombe Hill Wharf, Gloucestershire (the canal closed in 1876, one of those with a relatively short life) and Frederick John Cullis (1842–1931), surveyor and civil engineer of the Gloucester Dock Company – from a longstanding Gloucestershire family though they moved to Birmingham when Winifred was four.

After doing well at the King Edward VI High School for Girls (Birmingham) she had extra science tuition at Mason College, Birmingham, despite a demonstrator threatening to leave as he though “it was indecent for a girl to study biology”. A Sidgwick scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge, she also obtained a DSc. of London in 1908, later followed by the award of the LLD honoris causa from Vassar College, New York, (1919), Goucher College, Maryland, (1931), and Birmingham University (1955). Winifred’s academic streak extended to her brother Cuthbert, mathematical professor at the University of Calcutta (and when Winifred learnt to read so fast he lost half his fee for teaching her) and to her brother Gilbert, Geological Professor at Imperial College.

In 1919 she was sent by the Colonial Office to lecture to the troops in Gibraltar and Malta, for which she was awarded the O.B.E – later becoming a C.B.E.. Her original work included investigation of mechanisms of secretion of urine, perfusion of the isolated mammalian heart, and the effects of fatigue on factory workers. Amongst a host of posts she was the first woman professor in a British medical school and the second in the country. Apart from one secondment in Toronto, whilst the university sought a replacement for Thomas Gregor Brodie (whom she had assisted in research), she served the School of Medicine for Women throughout her life, even attending an important meeting the day before she died. In 1919 we may note she was sharing her home at 47 Belsize Avenue with Brodie’s widow, Alice.

Winifred was Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League and in 1919 was one of two women appointed to the Industrial Fatigue Research Board of the Medical Research Council.[5] Lest we forget, she was a director of Time and Tide. In 1927 Winifred co-signed a letter to The Times regarding votes for women at 21, as President of the British Federation of University Women. Other signatories were also at this dinner: Lady Rhondda, Florence Barry, and Eva Moore.[6]

Winifred at work, 1930s, © National Portrait Gallery[7]
We can imagine that she may have had a passing word with the two Annas, Broman and Kellgren-Cyriax, the physical education guests on Table 1 and doubtless the other medical specialists in the room. Indeed it is possible that some of the diners had already heard some of her mid-afternoon weekly radio talks then running in 1932/33 on the BBC Home Service that would form part of “Your Body and the Way it Works”, – though perhaps no-one was discussing at table her contributions on “How Food is taken round the Body” or “Movements of the alimentary canal”![8]

Having taught for a while in a private school it is not surprising she was also invited to speak at the Association of Headmistresses of Recognised Private Schools on “The Place of Modern Languages in the Education of Girls”, suggesting that there was a special place for private schools as they had scope for experimentation harder to fit into other schools.[9] The headmistresses in the Rembrandt Rooms may well have been there, in January 1933. Asa Briggs cites her as a broadcaster of great distinction who found radio to be a good outlet for education.[10]

Winifred Clara Cullis in the studio 1937 © National Portrait Gallery, London[11]
Winifred was a co-founder of the British Federation of University Women, and the International Federation of University Women. In addition, along with eight other dinner guests : Theodora Bosanquet,  Josephine Collier, Myra Curtis, the Hon. Mrs. Franklin, Cicely Hamilton, Laura Wallis Mills, Hélène Reynard, and Lady Rhondda, she was a member of the London and National Society for Women’s Service.  Also members of the latter Society were The Lady Camrose (not at the dinner but wife of dinner speaker Lord Camrose), possibly the Mrs. Crosfield, and Mrs. G.F Watts of Table 23.

She was of course a serious woman, as this item in the press a month before the dinner attests:

THAT MODERN GIRL: WHAT A PROFESSOR THINKS OF HER. “I saw a girl at lunch, the other day, take out a brush and a little bottle and begin to manicure her nails. To me it was utterly disgusting.” So said Professor Winifred Cullis, lecturing to the Efficiency Club in London, on Tuesday night. the matter of clothes,” she said, ” I am a little bored with the enormous importance that so many people ascribe to superficial appearance. Certainly people should look neat and are suitably clad; but, surely, that is all that matters. “What irritates more than anything else is to see women paying extravagant attention to their looks in all sorts of places.”


In 1936 the Government of South Australia invited her to attend the Centennial Conference at Adelaide, and in 1937 she was a member of the British delegation to the meeting of the Indian Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1939 her portrait was painted by Alice Burton. During WW2 she travelled extensively for the Ministry of Information.

Former pupil Professor Ruth Bowden wrote in her detailed essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that “Her greatest contributions were to education, the application of science to healthy living, including sport, and the fostering of international goodwill and the emancipation of both sexes through education. She wrote The Body and its Health with Muriel Bond (1935), and Your Body and the Way it Works (1949).” [13]

Winifred died on 13th November 1956 at her home, Vincent House, Pembridge Square, London. Her Times obituary in 1956 stressed that her two abiding interests were physiology and her work to assist in securing for professional women an equal status with men. Dame Margot Fonteyn was one of several writing to The Times to add their own special dimension to Winifred’s lifetime of service and achievement.


[1] Portrait of Winifred Cullis by Alice Burton Photo credit Goodenough College. Sourced from Artworks online

[2] Angela V. John (2013), Turning the Tide, Cardigan, Parthian, p330

[3] See the discussion of these articles in Catherine Clay, Time and Tide, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, esp pp134-135

[4] Winifred Cullis, Wikipedia

[5] The Times, 30.4.1919

[6] Votes for Women at 21, Letter to the Editor. The Times, 4.2.1927 p10

[7] Winifred Clara Cullis by Central Press, bromide press print, 1930s, NPG x184354 © National Portrait Gallery

[8] Radio listing

[9] The Times 4.1.1933

[10] Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Volume II: The Golden Age of Wireless, OUP 1995

[11] Winifred Clara Cullis; with Sir Edward James Salisbury and Mary Field, by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1937, NPG x23986, © National Portrait Gallery, London

[12] Western Gazette, 10.2.1933 p13

[13] Ruth E.M.Bowden, Winifred Cullis, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23.9.2004

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