To mark International Women’s Day 2021, and as part of our celebration of 100 years of postgraduate research at the University of Bristol, Physics PGR Sophie Osbourne shares the stories of three twentieth-century pioneers.
Just over century ago, at 1910’s Second International Socialist Women’s Conference, delegates Clara Zetkin, Käte Dunekin and Paula Thiede proposed a “special Women’s Day” — a day that would help promote women’s suffrage around the world.
Their proposal was passed unanimously by all 100 delegates, and this led, on 19th March 1911, to the first International Women’s Day — an occasion that saw over one million people attend rallies for women’s rights in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland.
IWD began to be celebrated by the United Nations in 1975, the International Year of the Woman; twenty years later the landmark roadmap for women’s rights, The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, was signed by 189 governments at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.
Now IWD is celebrated in over 100 countries across the world — and this year‘s celebration, on 8th March 2021, will be the 110th.
Over the past few months, I have been working on a project that explores the early years of postgraduate research at the university, from 1919 to 1939. Of the 145 students who were awarded a PhD, DSc, or DLitts during this period, twelve of these were women, and all but one of these were in the Faculty of Science. They studied a range of topics from “The Biochemistry and Bacteriology of discolouration in Stilton Cheese” (Elfrieda Matlick, 1923) to “Contribution to the study of the watermoulds” (Evelyn Joyce Berril, 1937).
So, who were some of these pioneering women of research? I’ve chosen to focus on the lives and work of three, though I wish I could have written about all of them!
The First: Lily Batten
Almost 100 years ago, on 5th May 1921, Lily Batten was awarded her PhD by the Board of Examiners for her work on “The British Species of the Genus Polysiphona” — making her the first female student to be awarded a PhD at the University of Bristol.
This was just the beginning of her achievements, though, as she went on to hold several lectureship and research posts in her career — and was Professor of Botany at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, for 30 years. Remembered by her students as a dedicated teacher, she continued to write to many of them until just a few months before her death.
As well as her successful career in education, Lily’s continued research had a major impact in her field. Her 1923 work, “A Handbook of the British Seaweeds” was published worldwide and was still in use 50 years after its original publication — it has been described as “a work of outstanding scholarship”. During the Second World War, Lily co-ordinated the production of agar from British seaweeds to compensate for a potential shortage which would have had serious medical consequences for the country. The Chairman of the Vegetable and Drugs Committee at the Ministry of Supply described her contribution to the war effort as “deserving of the highest praise”.
The Accidental Chemist: Annie Millicent King
Annie Millicent King never intended to study chemistry — she originally began her studies at the University of Bristol to complete an arts degree. Her time as an undergraduate was during the end of the First World War, and due to the need for scientists created by the World War, she decided to change to a chemistry degree.
It was a good choice — she graduated with First Class Honours in 1922 and was awarded her PhD in 1927 on the basis of four pieces of work: “1. Do the ions in or near a surface conduct? 2. The effect of Nitro cellulose upon the rate of crystallisation of various gelatinising solution in which it is dissolved. 3&4 A method for Determining the Hydrologies of solutions of sodium palmite at 90oC”.
During the Second World War, Bristol was targeted in a number of air raids, and Annie volunteered to serve as an ambulance driver, alongside her work as Secretary and Librarian to the University of Bristol’s Chemistry Department.
The Historian: Olive Merivel Griffith
The first, and only, woman to receive an Arts PhD during the period we looked into was Olive Merival Griffiths. After receiving a BA in Modern History from St Hugh’s College Oxford in 1927, she studied for her Diploma in Education at St Mary’s Training College, Paddington, before moving into research. This move to research led her to writing her paper “Presbyterianism as a social and religious force”, earning her the Arnold Essay Prize in 1930. She continued her research as a postgraduate student at the University of Bristol, culminating in her 1933 PhD titled “English Presbyterian Thought from the Bartholomew Ejections (1662) to the Foundation of the Unitarian Movement”.
Olive spent several years lecturing in local history for Gloucester Community Council, later becoming Secretary to the Local History Committee in 1947. She worked with groups from schoolchildren to the Women’s Institute to Pensioner’s Groups to help foster a love of local history in the county, work she continued up until two days before her death, driven by her affection for Gloucestershire.
These women were the first to receive their PhDs from the University of Bristol, but they were by no means the last — in 2020, there were 990 female students enrolled at the university undertaking postgraduate research degrees, 45.6% of the postgraduate research community. These pioneering women opened the doors for women in research, and looking at them only just scratches the surface of the abundance of research completed by women at the University of Bristol — all of whom we celebrate today.