• Charlotte Yeung


Every year on April 14th, locals from Uto, Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, proudly gather around a shrine to pay their respects to the person they remember as ‘Mother of the Sea’. But who do they honour on this special day? A little known female scientist from Leigh, Greater Manchester. This annual festival is known as the Drew festival, where people gather to revere the scientist as a goddess and bestow flower garlands upon the monument.

Her name is Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker, born on this day in 1901, and she is known in Japan for saving the nori industry. ‘Nori’, if you haven’t heard of it, is an essential ingredient of sushi, the black papery seaweed that’s used to wrap up your fish and rice into a neat, bitesize package. It’s also a staple of Japanese cuisine, a nutritious and sustainable food harvested en masse from coastal seaweed farms around Japan. For hundreds of years, Japanese people have relied on this simple food as a main part of their diet. But in 1951, a series of devastating storms caused massive damage to the fragile seaweed beds, and it simply stopped growing. It was a disaster - thousands of Japanese farmers were about to be thrown into poverty within just a few weeks.

At the time, Kathleen was working as a research fellow at the University of Manchester, a position she held until her death in 1957. She was investigating the lifecycle of a very similar species of seaweed that grows off the Welsh coast. Thanks to an academic paper she had published in the scientific journal Nature in 1949, Japanese scientist Dr Segawa Sokichi was able to figure out how to regenerate the seaweed beds. He realised that a key developmental stage in the seaweed’s lifecycle, the algal phase, had been disturbed, with devastating consequences for the crop’s growth. Building on Kathleen’s work, Japanese marine biologists were able to develop artificial seeding techniques to kickstart production of the precious nori. Thankfully this led to a bountiful harvest that could be relied upon year after year.

Without this cutting-edge research, the Japanese economy could have ground to a halt and led to widespread famine. Dr Segawa recognised Kathleen’s discovery was crucial to their success, and made sure that it was she and not he that received credit. What’s more is Kathleen achieved this all in her own unfunded lab - a sexist rule at the time meant that as a married woman she could not be paid by the university for her work. Through her persistence and dedication, she uncovered the secrets of a vital crop that profoundly impacted life on the other side of the world - cultivating an industry now worth $2 billion dollars per year to Japan.

Here at The Turnpike we would like to celebrate these remarkable achievements in 2021 with a festival to honour Kathleen in her home-town of Leigh. It’s almost certainly going to involve sushi, special guests and fun activities for all the family. We hope you can join us next year to show your appreciation for a legend from Leigh!