King Edward's School Home

Old Edwardians

Winifred Cullis, CBE

Winifred Clara Cullis was born in Gloucester on June 2nd 1875. Her time with the King Edwards began at Summer Hill School, one of the four middle schools then run by the Foundation. She moved to KEHS at the age of 16 where she immediately made an impact upon her contemporaries.  Pretty and independent, she had a gift for forceful and fluent speech and was clearly intellectually gifted. Her classmates knew her as a deft tennis player and a talented actress and chorister, who ultimately led the chorus in the school production of Antigone. It was also at KEHS that Winifred developed the keen interest in science that would be the foundation of her distinguished career.

From this early age, Winifred was a pioneer for women’s rights in education, tackling the issue with confidence and grace.  She was sent to Mason College for extra tuition in Biology, much to the outrage of the research assistants who thought it was ‘improper’ to instruct girls in the subject and refused to teach her. Winifred overcame this obstacle with the strength and good humour that became her trademark.

By 1900, Winifred had completed Parts One and Two of the Natural Sciences Tripos as the Sidgwick Scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge. Not wishing to take a medical qualification, she then took up a post as demonstrator in Physiology at the London School of Medicine for Women. After a series of promotions within the department, Winifred not only received a Doctorate but was also appointed Emeritus Professor of Physiology at the University of London.

During her early career, Winifred was a keen researcher and became well known for her ground-breaking papers on the mechanism for the secretion of urine and the perfused isolated heart of a rabbit. She was always keen to help others with their research as well, never accepting written credit for her contributions and taking a genuine pleasure in their successes. In later years, her national and international career made long-term research difficult, so Winifred took ‘holidays’ from this work to tackle juicy research problems with her colleagues.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Winifred used her gifts as an engaging and persuasive speaker to lecture troops on physiology and health. For this work, she was awarded an OBE in 1919 and the CBE in 1929.

Winifred continued lecturing across the British Empire for many years, adopting a number of worthy causes along the way. In 1929 she became president of the International Federation of University Women, a role which combined her passion for the advancement of women with the values of international cooperation.  Winifred was also a determined educator, writing a series of talks for the BBC Schools Programme and publishing two books on Human Biology. Your Body and the Way It Works was the first school book to include passages on growth, reproduction and heredity, subjects normally omitted from materials for children at that time.

By 1940, Winifred was once again working with troops, this time in China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. During a speech to the University Women’s Club in Ottawa in February 1942, she urged the population to:

 “Be sympathetic toward the people over there if they become irritable or the long strain begins to tell on them. Remember that they have been living under blackouts, fear of raids and rationing. They are sheltering strangers in their homes and they are working hard. But they are trying to preserve for their children a foundation for a life of freedom and justice.”

During this speech, she also celebrated with the assembled crowd the advances in medical care since the start of the war; 300 wartime residential homes opened and, in spite of the circumstances, infant mortality rates were the lowest ever recorded. 

During her retirement Winifred remained active, founding the British Federation of University Women, becoming Deputy Chairman of the English Speaking Union and working with the Central Council of Physical Recreation. The British-American Associates named the Winifred Cullis Lecture Fellowship in recognition of her lifelong efforts, an accolade which Winifred thought to be her greatest. She was also awarded an honorary LL.D from the University of Birmingham in 1955.

Winifred passed away on 13th November 1956, leaving a legacy of ardent feminism, passionate intellectualism and generosity of spirit, traits which remain highly valued at KEHS to this day. Her obituary in the British Medical Journal read:

“That she was able to achieve so much for the position of women all over the world was due to her great charm and genial personality. Her large-minded and generous nature made an immediate impression on people of all kinds”

A fellow Old Edwardian wrote:

“There was nothing small or petty about Winnie, and she was a splendidly loyal friend.”