Kathleen Drew-Baker revolutionized nori farming and is celebrated in Japan at an annual festival in her honor where she is honored as “Mother of the Sea”:
“The modern Japanese seaweed industry is credited to the pioneering work of the British seaweed scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker. Traditionally, Japanese farmers threw bamboo branches into shallow, muddy water, where the spores of the seaweed would collect. A few weeks later, these branches were moved to a river estuary. Later, farmers deployed nets strung between the poles to wait for nori seed to build up on them. This method was used for hundreds of years but remained small-scale, with the vast majority of seaweed sourced from the wild.
|British botanist Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker|
“Sourcing seed like this made farming unscalable. Wild collection was the luck of the draw. Some years, large quantities of the thin filament-like spores grew into healthy, harvestable plants with long, green leaves; other years, they failed to settle. Since little was known about nori’s life cycle, there was no way to spore new seed to repopulate the depleted seaweed beds.
“Wild sporing became increasingly problematic as industrialization polluted waters and a string of typhoons led to a disastrous drop in harvests. By the late 1940s, nori production in Japan had dwindled to almost nothing.
“But then up popped Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker in Manchester, England, who had been a lecturer in botany at the University of Manchester, where she studied algae. The university barred married women from lecturing, so, when Dr. Baker tied the knot with fellow academic Henry Wright-Baker in 1928, she was fired and relegated to a job as an unpaid research fellow. Undeterred, Dr. Drew-Baker and her husband built a seaside lab, and here she dedicated herself to figuring out how to reproduce algae spores. She focused on a type of nori known as laver that grew off the coast of Wales and was used locally in bread and soup.
“In 1949, she published a paper in the journal Nature detailing her work, and the timing was perfect. Back in Japan, Sokichi Segawa at the Shimoda Marine Biological Station read Drew-Baker’s paper and combined her research with new techniques of using synthetic material tied to bamboo poles. This practice rescued the nori industry and is still used today by farmers like me.
“Though Dr. Drew-Baker is all but forgotten in the United States and Europe, in Japan she is a hero and has been named ‘Mother of the Sea.’ In Osaka, there is a monument in her honor; in Kumamoto, a shrine. Every year since 1953, there has been a ‘Drew festival’ to celebrate her legacy.”