Dr. Betty Roots

Obituary of Dr. Betty Ida Roots




An accomplished scientist, photographer and intrepid traveller, Dr. Betty Roots finished her remarkable life at Toronto General Hospital on Saturday, October 24, 2020, at the age of 93 plus three days. She lived and died fearlessly, surviving V2 rockets, desert adventures and titanium knees, to name a few. First born of parents Maude and Cecil Roots in South Croydon, Surrey in England on October 21, 1927, Betty (it’s NOT Elizabeth) practiced the exacting method of the scales of Libra, with attention to detail in her well received scientific, photographic and editing work.


Her unpublished memoirs paint a personal and professional history ripe with humour, curiosity and, inevitably for a female scientist of her time, gender bias that diminished the options open to women at the end of WW II, and decades later. It is true that she learned dissection at an early age and stored an assortment of interesting specimens either in her family’s back garden or in the bedroom that she shared with her sister, Celia. In Wartime, she was evacuated to another part of England and ultimately to Wales and learned to hide under her desk during examinations as the air raid sirens blared until the All Clear.


In 1949, she earned her BSc (Special Honours) in Zoology at University College, University of London, England, a Diploma in Education in 1950 from the Institute of London, England, and a PhD in Zoology (Comparative Physiology) in 1953, University College, University of London, England.


Betty’s academic appointments were diverse, from Assistant Lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, University of London, Visiting Scientist in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Research Neuroscientist, Department of Neurosciences, University of California, San Diego (La Jolla) to her appointments at the University of Toronto that began in 1969, where she rose from Assistant Professor (1969-1972), to Full Professor and Assistant Chair of Zoology (1972-75), Associate Dean (Sciences) Erindale College (now UTM), to becoming the first female Chair of Zoology at the University of Toronto (1984-1990). In 1993, she was appointed Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto.


In 1981, at Albert Hall, followed by a reception in Westminster Abbey, Betty was awarded the prestigious DSc degree from the University of London, England, for her achievements in research in the fields of comparative physiology and neurobiology. She was the recipient of many honours, including the Margaret Browne Research Fellowship, Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship, a Fulbright Award, Welcome Trust Research Award, Woman of the Year (1990), Canadian Association for Women in Science. One of her most cherished honours was becoming an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (FRSC, 1989, Life Member, 2014), which she supported enthusiastically until her death. In 2002, she was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and in 2013, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. She is the recipient of several awards for her photography, including a Silver Medal from the ­Photographic Society of America.  


Betty was an active member of several prestigious professional organizations that reflected her research interests in neurochemistry and electron microscopy. She made life-long friends from many countries who shared her passion for scientific enquiry, discipline and curiosity. The Royal Canadian Institute (President) and the Toronto Camera Club (two times the President) gave her other platforms for education. She was a life member of the Royal Ontario Museum and supporter of the World Wildlife Fund. At the time of her death, Betty was an active Founding Director of her much beloved Roberta Bondar Foundation. Roberta, her loyal friend for over 50 years and first PhD student, was a source of inspiration, energy and pride, ever-present to rescue Betty from jungles, deserts, deep waters and diverse health challenges.


Betty is survived by her loving sister Celia (Ian) Broom, brother David (Gillian); nieces Rosamund (David) Shulver, Richmond Hill, ON, Abigail (Jonathan) Barham, Sydney Australia; nephews Jonathan (Elizabeth) Ampthill, Bedfordshire, UK, Christopher (Catherine) Torquay, Devon, UK and eight great nieces and nephews; cousin Madeline Kalbach PhD, Calgary. She will be dearly missed by her formidable and supportive extended family Barbara Bondar, Bonnie Patterson and doggie Zoey; predeceased by Christine Yankou and doggie Betsy (Toronto), Mildred and Edward Bondar (Sault Ste. Marie).


Remembered by dear friends in Ontario: Avril, Eleanor, Ellie (co-author), Frances and Peter,  Maryke, Robyn, Sherry; and many professional colleagues and friends around the world.


Cremation has taken place. Tributes can be left at www.humphreymiles.com. To commemorate Betty’s life, her wishes were that donations in lieu of flowers, be made to advance the environmental programs of the Roberta Bondar Foundation.