Who was Johanna Westerdijk?

Portret van Johanna Westerdijk in toga

Johanna Westerdijk (1883-1961) was the first female professor in the Netherlands. On 10 February 1917, she became a Professor by Special Appointment at Utrecht University. She became a Professor by Special Appointment for the second time in 1930, this time at the University of Amsterdam. Westerdijk was a Professor of Plant Pathology (Phytopathology). She also became Director of the ´Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures´ (CBS), now Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute and of the Phytopathology Laboratory Willie Commelin Scholten (WCS) in 1906.

Important in her field of expertise

Westerdijk broke scientific ground for plant pathology and mycology (the study of fungi). The fungi in the modern-day CBS are still being classified with the taxonomy system Westerdijk developed. She also sought out and established ties between research and social challenges, such as combating elm disease and potato disease. Under her leadership, a lot of research into elm disease was carried out and it was ultimately proven that a fungus, Ceratocystis ulmi, was causing elm tree mortality. Thanks to this discovery, this elm disease is still called Dutch elm disease in English. Westerdijk was well known as a good lecturer, research leader and organizer. She maintained networks all over the world.

Important to women in science

Following her appointment as a professor in 1917, Westerdijk devoted herself to female students. Westerdijk used her standing and position to improve the role women played in science. Whenever there were vacancies in her laboratory, she preferred to hire female students. Westerdijk was a Supervisor to 56 PhD Candidates; almost half of them were women.

Good networker

Johanna Westerdijk was a networker who united many people from multiple disciplines. She did not share her knowledge just with her fellow scientists, but with laypeople as well. She did this by writing newspaper articles and organizing open-information days in Villa Java in Baarn, where the CBS and WCS laboratories where located. Westerdijk had a strong international orientation. Students, PhD Candidates and other researchers dropped by the Villa regularly. Johanna Westerdijk was hospitable, musical and loved good parties. Her motto: "working and partying form healthy minds".

Westerdijk's research more relevant than ever

Fungi have enormous potential for solving big social issues, such as resistance to antibiotics, the depletion of fossil fuels and bad harvests caused by plant diseases. For instance, 25 % of all harvests fail due to plant diseases. This includes diseases caused by fungi. In order to feed the world population, research into and prevention of plant diseases is still relevant and important. Within the research focus area Future Food, Utrecht University investigates how crops' immune systems work and how sustainable solutions to protect plants can be found.

Read more about Johanna Westerdijk

Video about Johanna Westerdijk's life (in Dutch)