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“The world needs science and science needs women”: Women in STEM at Churchill Archives Centre

14th December 2017 in Archives Centre, Women at Churchill

Women in science banner image

The Churchill Archives Centre sits at the heart of Churchill College and our outstanding collections draw researchers from all over the world to the college. Our archives are primarily twentieth-century and contemporary but cover a huge range of subjects.

Many thousands of boxes are devoted to the life of the College’s founder, Sir Winston Churchill, but our collecting remit is much broader, reflecting Sir Winston’s own wide interests. Sir Winston was fascinated by science and technology and convinced that they held the key to Britain’s future success. His conviction led to the establishment of Churchill College as an institution dedicated to educating and supporting the next generation of scientists.

The Archives Centre collects the history of science and technology and one of the emerging strengths of our collection is the papers of women in STEM subjects. This specialism is entirely appropriate, given the College’s proud claim to have been the first male college in Cambridge to vote to admit women, Churchill College’s commitments to inclusivity and equality and Athene Donald’s determination to recruit more female scientists to Churchill (she is the 7th Master and first female Master of the College).

The Archives Centre holds the papers of pioneering female scientists who made ground-breaking discoveries as well as of women who worked in technological and scientific fields. As you can see from their biographies some of these women did not enjoy recognition for their achievements during their lifetimes nor live to see the results of their scientific breakthroughs. Many of their careers evidence success in the face of opposition. In our most recent collection — Dame Athene Donald’s own archive — we see the work she did during her time (2010–14) as University Gender Equality Champion at a time when women were still significantly under-represented at the highest levels in the University. One message from all these stories comes through loud and clear: “The world needs science and science needs women” (L’Oréal For Women in Science award), quoted in Dame Athene Donald’s blog. Churchill. Be Part of It.

These biographies are arranged chronologically, by date of birth of the subject. Please contact Churchill Archives Centre at to find out more about these or any of our other collections.

Lise Meitner (1878–1968), physicist

Image of Lisa Meitner and Eva Von Bahr-Bergius in lab

Lise Meitner was born in Austria, but left in 1907 to go to Berlin to study with the physicist Max Planck, becoming the joint discoverer of Thorium-C in 1908. In 1912 she moved on to work with Otto Hahn at the Chemical Institute, Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft, in Göttingen. She collaborated with Hahn for many years, with their work culminating in the identification and explanation of nuclear fission, 1939. While Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944, Meitner’s work was not similarly recognised. Many have thought it should have been.

During the First World War Meitner served for a time as an X-ray nurse in the Austrian Army, but continuing her research, Meitner became the discoverer of Protoactinium in 1917, and the following year was made Head of the Radiation Physics Department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a position which she held until she left Germany.

Letter from Meitner to Hahn re: discovery of nuclear fission

In 1926 Meitner became a Professor at the University of Berlin, and also a correspondent of the Royal Society of Göttingen. In 1933 she was dismissed from her professorship at Berlin University because she was Jewish, and in 1938 she was forced to leave the Institute. She escaped to Holland and then Sweden, where she remained until 1960. She retired to Cambridge, where she lived until her death in 1968 with her nephew Otto Frisch.

In 1992, element 109, the heaviest known element in the universe, was named Meitnerium in her honour. Lise Meitner is considered by many as one of the most significant woman scientists of the 20th century.

Dame Enid Russell Smith (1903–1989) civil servant

Letter congratulating from British Federation of University Women AMG on becoming president of the Royal Microscopic Society. British Federation of Women Graduates and Image of Glauert with electron microscope. Strangeways Research Lab, University of Cambridge

In 1925, Dame Enid became one of the first women to enter the Civil Service by competitive examination and joined the Ministry of Health as Assistant Principal. She remained in the Ministry of Health and was promoted to Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary, 1930–4; Principal, 1934–9; and Assistant Secretary, from 1939. During the Second World War, she was involved in organising the evacuation of children from major cities to the country. She also played an important role in the post-war establishment of the National Health Service. She was Principal Assistant Secretary; Under-Secretary, 1946–57; and Deputy Secretary, 1957–63.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), chemist and crystallographer

Image of Rosalind Franklin at microscope. Henry Grant/Museum of London

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a British chemist and crystallographer who is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. It was her X-ray diffraction photos of DNA and her analysis of that data -shown to Francis Crick and James Watson without her knowledge — that gave them clues crucial to building their correct theoretical model of the molecule in 1953. While best known for this work, Franklin also did important research into the micro-structure and properties of coals and other carbons and spent the last five years of her career elucidating the structure of plant viruses, notably tobacco mosaic virus. Franklin is another woman frequently cited as not having won the Nobel Prize, although in her case her death before the award of the prize for the DNA work naturally excluded her.

Mavis Batey (1921—2013), codebreaker

Italian Naval Enigma Code. Crown Copyright and Image of BTEY from ‘The Oldie’. The Oldie

During the Second World War, Mavis Batey worked as a codebreaker, having been sent to the Government Code and Cipher School. She initially worked in London, checking commercial codes and reviewing the personal columns of The Times for coded spy messages. She was then sent to Bletchley Park to work in the research unit run by Dilly Knox breaking German Enigma codes, notably in March 1941 deciphering a message about an Italian attack on the Royal Navy convoy and breaking the Enigmacipher used by the German secret service, the Abwehr.

Baroness Thatcher (1925—2013), chemist

Photograph of a young Margaret Thatcher (then Margaret Roberts), a research chemist at Lyons. United States Government and Letter from Alfred Spinks, President of The Chemical Society congratulating Margaret Thatcher on becoming an honorary fellow of the society. Royal Society of Chemistry

Image right: Letter from Alfred Spinks, President of The Chemical Society congratulating MT on becoming an honorary fellow of the society courtesy of Royal Society of Chemistry.

Not only was Margaret Thatcher the first female prime minister she was also the first prime minister with a science degree. From 1943–1947 Thatcher studied Chemistry at Somerville College, University of Oxford. During her time at Oxford, Thatcher specialised in X-ray crystallography and her supervisor was Nobel Prize laureate Professor Dorothy Hodgkin (the first and only UK female to win the prize).

Following graduation, Thatcher worked as a research chemist for BX Plastics and then J. Lyons and Co. However, in 1951 she shifted her focus to politics and in 1953 qualified as a barrister. Her scientific background meant she was one of the first world leaders to appreciate the importance of the greenhouse effect for global temperatures. In 1989 she spoke passionately about man-made damage to the environment to the UN when she explicitly cited the potential of the greenhouse effect for damage.

Audrey Glauert (1925–2014), physicist

Letter congratulating from British Federation of University Women AMG on becoming president of the Royal Microscopic Society. British Federation of Women Graduates and Image of Glauert with electron microscope. Strangeways Research Lab, University of Cambridge

From 1947–1950 Glauert was an Assistant Lecturer in Physics at Royal Holloway University, following this she was appointed the Sir Halley Stewart Research Fellow at Strangeways Lab, Cambridge (she worked at Strangeways from 1950–1989). During this time Glauert also held a fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge (1966–1993). Glauert was the first woman to be elected President of the Royal Microscopic Society, a post she held from 1970-1971. Glauert published seminal textbooks on Electron Microscopy: 'Practical Methods in Electron Microscopy 1972—1999' and 'Biological Specimen Preparation for Transmission Electron Microscopy'.

Dame Athene Donald (1953–), physicist and Master of Churchill College

Image of AMD at microscope at Cavendish Lab and Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge  Thesis front page by Athene Donald

Athene Donald attended Girton College, University of Cambridge for both her undergraduate and post-graduate degree. She received her PhD in 1977 at which point she moved to the University of Cornell, USA, where she spent four years as a postdoctoral associate. Donald then returned to Cambridge initially on a fellowship in the Department of Material Sciences before moving to the Cavendish Laboratory in 1983, where she has remained ever since. She became the first female professor in any of the physical sciences in the University in 1998 and took up the Mastership of Churchill College in 2014.

We are still working through Dame Athene’s papers (so the collection is not yet available to researchers).They include her work in experimental physics and her role as a gender equality champion, and a copy of her blog.

— Natalie Adams, Senior Archivist, December 2017

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