S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Lurie, Miss Rebecca Leah (mycology)

Born: 4 February 1902, Cape Town, South Africa.
Died: 13 July 1978, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Rebecca (Becky) Leah Lurie was the daughter of Leon Lurie and his wife, Sare (born Lurie, but not a relative), who came to South Africa from Lithuania in the late eighteen-eighties. Through her mother she belonged to the well-known Lurie family, which included many rabbis. In about 1914 her father moved to Johannesburg, where she matriculated at the Girls High School in Barnato Park. Two years later she commenced her studies at the University College, Johannesburg (from 1922 the University of the Witwatersrand), which awarded her the degrees BSc (Botany and Zoology) and BSc Hons (Botany, with distinction), the latter in 1926. She gradually began to specialise in plant pathology and mycology - the study of fungi.

In 1927 Rebecca was awarded the H.B. Webb Gift Research Scholarship and from October that year spent a year at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, as a resident student in plant pathology. Upon her return to Johannesburg she continued her studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1929, obtaining the MSc degree (with distinction) in 1931 for her research on the fungi concerned in mine-timber decay. Soon afterwards she was the joint winner of the Ladies 89 Pioneer Club Scholarship, awarded to the best female student in any faculty in any year of study. From 1929 to 1937 she was intermittently an assistant in the Departments of Zoology and Botany. Her plans to conduct research towards a doctoral degree never bore fruit, owing mainly to the demands of her work for the Chamber of Mines, and her marriage to Maurice Brown in 1936, followed by the birth of her two children in 1937 and 1940.

Her research on the decay of mine timbers, which she initially conducted in the Department of Botany of the University of the Witwatersrand, soon drew the attention of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines. At that time timber props were the primary means of support in the underground passages, but the timber was attacked by wood borer and fungi, causing rapid decay. This was costing the mines millions of pounds annually in replacements. Little was known about the organisms responsible for the decay, the extent to which temperature, humidity and other conditions affect them, and about how to stem their development. Consequently the Gold Producers Committee decided to support Rebecca s work, as it promised to be of economic importance to the mining industry. She was permanently employed by the Chamber of Mines in 1934 (thus becoming South Africa s first woman mycologist), at first using a garage in the Old Exchange Yard in Johannesburg as a laboratory. In 1936, on the basis of encouraging results, a large new laboratory, named the Transvaal Timber Research Laboratory, was built there and she was invited to take charge of it. In 1936 she presented a paper on her work, "Mine timber preservation: Mine fungi", at a symposium on Botany, Pure and Applied, in Relation to Industry. Her paper was published in the South African Journal of Science (1936, Vol. 33, pp. 383-389). Meanwhile in 1935 she had visited various laboratories in England where research on timber preservation and allied problems was being carried out.

During these years she regularly went down into the depths of various mines to collect fungi that caused damage to mine props and fabrics. By the end of 1944 over 2400 specimens had been collected. The various fungi had to be isolated and identified, and as many forms had not yet been described, specimens were sent to Kew Gardens, London, for study. The next step was to cultivate the fungi in laboratory media, whereafter a careful study was made of their effects on treated and untreated timber. This was done on small test pieces in the laboratory and on hundreds of poles installed in the mines. Rebecca regularly inspected these poles over a period of years. Her results proved that the existing treatment of timber with zinc sulphate could be rendered far more effective by the addition of a small quantity of a mixture of toxic salts that came to be known as the Yard Mixture named after the Old Exchange Yard. Several plants for the treatment of timber with the Yard Mixture were erected on the Witwatersrand from 1933. The treatment increased the life of timbers about three times.

Fungal decay also affected various fabrics used underground, such as flannel air-filtration bags, blanketing, canvas, coconut matting and hessian. From 1935 Rebecca and her co-workers (among them Miss D. Weintraub and later Miss M.W. Simpson) isolated the various organisms causing the destruction of each type of material and developed preservatives which lengthened the service life of the materials by many times their untreated lifespan. As a direct result of the work of the laboratory the pre-treatment of fabrics to be used in the mines was instituted by the manufacturers.

When Rebecca was unable to continue in full-time employment in 1937 she acted as consultant to the Timber Research Laboratory for five years, again taking charge of the laboratory from 1942 to 1945.

During World War II (1939-1945) interruption of the importation of both timber and toxic salts meant that Rebecca and her staff had to find and test local substitutes. In addition the Department of Defence asked her to investigate tropic-proofing of material designed for use in the Far East Campaign. She and her staff also devoted much time to the study of sporotrichosis (an infection with Sporotrichum fungi which causes subcutaneous abscesses), when an unprecedented outbreak of the disease among mineworkers in the early nineteen-forties threatened the survival of the mining industry. They isolated the fungus and proved that theYard Mixture (and another chemical mixture) could be used to control it in the mines - a valuable contribution to both the health of mineworkers and the economy of the gold mining industry. This work was published by Rebecca and her colleagues in the Proceedings of the Transvaal Mine Medical Officers Association in 1947.

Rebecca s work received wide recognition both locally and overseas. She resigned from the Transvaal Timber Research Laboratory in January 1946, probably mainly because her husband did not want her to work. The Chamber of Mines, as a tribute to her achievements, instituted and funded the Rebecca Lurie Brown Prize in Botany at the University of the Witwatersrand. This prize is still being awarded today.

After her retirement Rebecca developed a magnificent garden, with indigenous plants and water features, at her home in Parktown, Johannesburg. It won several prizes, attracted thousands of garden lovers, and was regularly opened to the public to raise money for charity. She and her husband also collected antiques and shared an interest in the stock market. She also became a highly accomplished needlewoman and loved to display examples of her intricate needlework and masterly embroidery. She master-minded many charitable fetes and morning markets, learned to speak Italian and regularly visited Italy to buy exquisite linens. She was a vivacious and warm-hearted extrovert with wide interests and an active social life, and an accomplished pianist, although she never played in public. Her many achievements are all the more remarkable considering the fact that for years she suffered from migraine headaches and bouts of depression. Rebecca had a strong sense of Jewish identity and commitment to Judaism and was for many years the national treasurer of the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa.

Rebecca and her husband did a great deal of travelling, both in southern Africa and overseas. In 1959 she was invited to deliver a paper at the Ninth Botanical Congress held in Montreal, Canada, as part of a symposium on sources of fungi pathogenic to humans. She died of a heart attack at the age of 76, having led a full and fascinating life.

List of sources:

Blecher, Leonae (daughter of Rebecca Lurie Brown). Personal recollections about Rebecca and her family.

Bowen, J.W. & Lomberg, B.R. The preservation of mining timber, with particular reference to the effect of air pressure, moisture content, initial vacuum and temperature on the absorption of preservative. Journal of the South African Institution of Engineers, 1940, Vol. 30(1), pp. 1-14.

Brown, Mrs M. (R. Lurie). Mine timber preservation: Mine fungi. South African Journal of Science, 1936, Vol. 33, pp. 383-389.

Brown, Rebecca, Weintraub, Dora & Simpson, Muriel W. Timber as a source of sporotrichosis infection. Proceedings of the Transvaal Mine Medical Officers Association, 1947, pp. 5-33.

Doidge, E.M. South African fungi and lichens to the end of 1945. Bothalia, 1950, Vol. 5, pp. 18-44 (see pp. 42-43).

Eliovson, Naomi. Gold mines fight fungi. Libertas, 1946, Vol. 6(2), pp. 54-61.

Gilliland, H.B. On the history of plant study upon the Witwatersrand. Journal of South African Botany, 1953, Vol. 19, pp. 93-104.

Interesting women with interesting careers: A South African woman takes charge of timber research. 11. Mrs Rebecca Brown. The Blue Stocking, March 1946, Vol. 15(2), pp. 27-28.

Kirsch, S. Rebecca (Lurie) Brown, South Africa s first woman mycologist (obituary). Jewish Affairs, March 1979, pp. 42-44.

Laughton, Elaine (E.M. Young). The incidence of fungal disease on timber trees in South Africa. South African Journal of Science, 1936, Vol. 33, pp. 377-382.

Lurie, Rebecca. Some organisms concerned in mine-timber decay. MSc thesis in Botany, University of the Witwatersrand, 1931.

Rebecca Lurie Brown, A yartzheit tribute. Union [of Jewish Women] News, November 1979.

South African Woman s Who s Who, 1938.

Southern African Jewish Times, 16 January 1959, To participate in Botanical congress; 29 October 1965, Becky Brown.

The Star, 5 September 1949, Treatment of mine props to curb disease of workers - British scientists told of Rand discovery; 16 February 1955, Women can do it: Mrs Maurice Brown, Mycologist.

Transvaal Chamber of Mines, Timber Research Laboratory. Report, 1942, by R. Brown (consultant). Johannesburg, May 1943.

University of the Witwatersrand. Handbooks, 1923-1938.

University of the Witwatersrand. Umpa (student magazine), 1931-1933.

Compiled by: Leonae Blecher