Winifred Lily Boys Smith (who as an adult used the name Boys-Smith) was born at Corsham, Wiltshire, England, on 7 November 1865. She was the daughter of Rosamond Georgiana Cox and her husband, John Boys Smith, an Anglican clergyman. Winifred received her early education at the Tunbridge Wells High School and went from there to Girton College, Cambridge, on a mathematical scholarship. She studied at Cambridge from 1891 to 1895, taking the full honours course for the natural science tripos, but as women were not granted degrees at that time she merely received a certificate.
Throughout 1895 Winifred Boys-Smith worked at science drawing at Cambridge. She was a talented botanical artist and many of her illustrations were published in contemporary botanical texts. In 1896 she took up the position of science lecturer in the Training Department of Cheltenham Ladies' College. Here she instructed teacher trainees in physiology, hygiene, botany, chemistry, zoology and physiography. During her tenure at the college, Boys-Smith spent four months in 1906–7 in the United States of America with the assistance of a Frances Mary Buss Memorial Travelling Scholarship. There she studied a variety of educational institutions and programmes, focusing in particular on the teaching of science and domestic science. Home economics, as Americans called domestic science, was well established in schools and colleges throughout the country.
In New Zealand at this time there was growing support for the idea of teaching domestic science to girls. Many people were persuaded that rapid social change and a declining birth rate would lead to a crisis, which had to be resisted by upholding the traditional ideals of family life and the educational influence of the home. It was suggested that instead of educating women to compete with men, they should be trained specifically for the domestic sphere. These opinions were repeated by public figures such as health reformer Frederic Truby King and educationalist George Hogben.
In 1909 Colonel John Studholme, a South Canterbury landowner, offered to help finance the establishment of a university chair of domestic science. The Council of the University of Otago approved Studholme's scheme and authorised him to find a suitable professor to develop the new course while he was visiting the United States and Britain. He chose Winifred Boys-Smith. She took up her position as first professor of home science and domestic arts at the University of Otago in January 1911. Boys-Smith travelled to New Zealand with a companion-secretary, Mary Jenkins.
Unlike many conservative supporters of sex-differentiated education, Boys-Smith saw the study of home science at university level as 'a great force in the education of women' – specifically, the higher education of women. She believed that because of changing social patterns domestic skills had increasingly come to be seen as menial. The educational programme set up by her for the School of Home Science sought to lift the status of the domestic arts by providing a strong scientific education, augmented with technical instruction. An emphasis on science, particularly chemistry, also served to silence those critics who believed that the School of Home Science belonged in a technical institute, not a university.
The facilities with which Boys-Smith had to contend in the early years of the school were primitive. It was housed in the old School of Mines, known as the 'Tin Shed', which contained a laboratory, a lecture room and a classroom. Practical cookery classes were held twice weekly using facilities at the North Dunedin Technical School. Laundry work was performed at Boys-Smith's own house until more suitable arrangements were made. From June 1911 she had the assistance of Helen Rawson, who was lecturer in chemistry, applied chemistry and social and household economics.
Boys-Smith established both a three-year bachelor of science in home science degree programme and a diploma course. The diploma began as a two-year course of instruction but was extended to three years in 1915. The School of Home Science opened its doors in 1911 with five full-time and 21 part-time students. Numbers grew steadily and by 1920 there were 71 women studying for the home science degree. A hall of residence, Studholme House, was established in 1915, to accommodate students from outside Dunedin. Many of the graduates of the school went on to satisfy the growing demand for home science teachers: training in domestic science became a compulsory subject for girls in all secondary and district high schools from 1917. The high academic standards set and maintained by Boys-Smith ensured the credibility of home science as part of the university curriculum.
Despite the demands faced by Boys-Smith in the early years of the school, she involved herself in outside activities. She formed the Ladies' Literary and Debating Club for university women in 1912, and from 1911 to 1917 was a member of the central council of the Society for the Health of Women and Children (known as the Plunket Society).
In 1920, having established the school on a secure footing, Boys-Smith resigned. She continued to live in Dunedin for a brief period before helping to set up a private school, Amberley Girls' Collegiate School, in Christchurch. In April 1921 she returned to England. During her retirement she maintained an interest in science and scientific drawing, and was involved in voluntary social work among the unemployed. She suffered from arthritis, which eventually incapacitated her. Boys-Smith died on 1 January 1939 at Milford on Sea, Hampshire. She had never married.
As New Zealand's first woman professor, Winifred Boys-Smith made a unique contribution to women's education. Through determination and hard work she overcame considerable academic opposition and ensured a secure future for the School of Home Science.