Spotlight on UAlberta trailblazer: Eleanor Silver Dowding

One of the first women to teach science at a Canadian university, Dowding established the first medical mycology laboratory in the British Commonwealth.

Amy Samson - 02 November 2017

University of Alberta's Eleanor Silver Dowding was one of the first women to teach science at a Canadian university. She established the first diagnostic medical mycology laboratory in the British Commonwealth. The laboratory, located in Edmonton, provided a diagnostic service focused on human fungal diseases for the Province of Alberta. Throughout her career, Dowding-called Silver by her friends-amassed a vast collection of medically important fungi that laid the foundation for the internationally significant University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium (UAMH).

Dowding wrote in her later years that "to attend University seemed an impossible dream…[In my day,] there were few openings for women except in office work and nursing."

Reflecting on Dowding's pioneering career in Mycologia her former colleagues Helene Schalkwijk-Barendsen, Randy Currah and Lynne Sigler wrote, "During a time when women in science were uncommon, Silver Keeping [nee Dowding] had gained great respect for her dedication to her work, her broad knowledge of her subjects and her innovative ideas."

She obtained a series of scholarships to enter the U of A and, in 1924, following her undergraduate degree, Dowding completed a master of science in botany on Edmonton area flora. Her research resulted in a number of significant papers that continue to provide background for work on plant ecology in Alberta.

Her former colleagues explain that Dowding then went on to study for a year at Birkbeck College with Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, an expert in fungal genetics, and in 1931 she completed a PhD at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Dowding's PhD supervisor was one of Canada's most well-known mycologists, Arthur Henry Reginald Buller. Dowding worked as a research assistant in Buller's lab studying the sexuality of rust fungi until 1933 when she moved to Ottawa briefly to work with I. L. Connors of the National Mycological Herbarium. She and Connors described Gelasinospora, a new genus of coprophilous fungi associated with animal droppings.

In 1933, Dowding returned to Edmonton to establish a diagnostic service for human fungal disease, which was set up through the Provincial Laboratory of Public Health in space provided by U of A dean of medicine Allan Rankin. Between 1933 and 1954, she ran the service, taught as a sessional lecturer in mycology, and supervised graduate student, J.W. (Bill) Carmichael who succeeded her in 1954. Dowding then continued her work through an honorary research associate position in the department of botany and later in genetics until her retirement in 1971.

Under the rules of employment at the time, she did not receive a salary for her work at the university as she was married to a faculty member―professor of mathematics Ernest Sydney Keeping.

Laying the foundation for an internationally significant fungi collection

Throughout her career, Dowding made a number of contributions to medical mycology. Her work on dermatophytes-a common name for types of fungi that cause skin infections-with U of A's dermatologist Harold Orr, shaped how these fungi are understood and classified, and provided early insights into the species involved in infection in Alberta.

Her later work, which was focused on systemic fungi that cause deep infections in otherwise healthy hosts, revealed an excellent understanding of the process of dimorphism, which refers to having two fungal shapes. Her observations on the relationships between an obscure fungus found in Alberta rodents and dimorphic human pathogens has been borne out by recent taxonomic studies.

Over the course of her research, she amassed a substantial collection of medically important fungi, which formed the nucleus of what was to later become the University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium under the leadership of Carmichael and Lynne Sigler.

University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium (UAMH)

The UAMH, which had its origins in Dowding's work, continues to be internationally significant. It is the only North American collection with a focus on medically important fungi.

In 1954, when Dowding stopped working at the Provincial Laboratory, her former student Bill Carmichael took over the management of the diagnostic service. He expanded the fungi collection started by Dowding, which he named the Mold Herbarium and Culture Collection, and established more formal curatorial methods.

Lynne Sigler began working with Carmichael as the curator in 1969, taking over the collection when Carmichael retired in 1983. She remembers the period between 1983 and 1985 as "a time of great uncertainty due to the need to obtain operational support." In 1986, she negotiated the relocation of the UAMH from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to the Devonian Botanic Garden, part of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences.

Prior to this transfer, scientists and physicians from around the world wrote to the U of A's school of medicine to express their concern about the collection's future, and to inform them of its significance to medical and agricultural research. These letters are held at the University of Alberta Archives.

One letter written by Ira F. Salkin, research scientist, State of New York, Department of Health, read:

Rather than the personal research collection of a faculty member, the herbarium represents an internationally renowned resource in fungal taxonomy. The scope of the collection, the accessibility of its components to scientists, the detailed data accumulated for each of the organisms, the expertise of the staff, make the collection invaluable to the scientific community. I have, on several occasions, utilized the excellent facilities in my studies of medically important fungi. In two of my projects, I found that the information required was only available through the mold herbarium.

The letter concluded, "much of the mycologic community looks upon the University of Alberta Mold Herbarium as one of the elements which have brought honor and distinction to the University."

With Carmichael and Sigler at the helm, the collection was used in a number of clinical developments. For instance, as an article in History Trails explained, the UAMH played a small part of the history of anti-rejection drug cyclosporine, which is used in transplantation. After the effectiveness of cyclosporine was demonstrated, Sigler provided a strain of the fungus from the UAMH collection that yielded greater amounts of the drug than the original strain.

In 2015, the U of A transferred the collection to the University of Toronto where it was renamed the UAMH Centre for Global Microfungal Biodiversity. The collection, which includes many fungal isolates studied by Dowding, is, according to the UAMH website, "the largest and most important research archive of public health-relevant microfungi in the western hemisphere and one of only two top-level biobanks of these organisms in the world."

For more information on Eleanor Silver Dowding see "E. Silver Dowding (Mrs E.S. Keeping)," by former colleagues HME Schalkwijk-Barendsen, R.S. Currah, and L. Sigler, and two articles in History Trails, "Preserving Genetic Diversity in the Kingdom of Fungi," and "Gone but Far From Forgotten." See also her article detailing a few of the contributions she and Orr made to mycology, and Ralph H. Estey's A History of Mycology in Canada. Additionally, in 2000, Vivian Zenari wrote an article for folio which focused on Lynne Sigler's work.