Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Philippa Fawcett, English mathematician and educationalist

Related post: What do you think of diversity?

My post from the previous year: It’s Ada Lovelace day!

Philippa Fawcett’s parents were Henry Fawcett and Millicent Garrett. In many ways they are more famous than their daughter Philippa. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a leader of English suffragists (the movement to grant women the vote). She had worked tirelessly, not only for the vote, but for the cause of women’s higher education in Cambridge. In 1871 she co-founded Newnham College in Cambridge, one of the earliest English university colleges for women. We take higher education for granted; however, it was not always so. The idea of women attending the University was greeted with derision when first seriously raised in the 19th century. In 1868 Cambridge’s Local Examinations Board allowed women to take exams for the first time. The first female colleges were formed in 1869 (Girton) and 1871 (Newnham). After that women were allowed into lectures, albeit at the discretion of the lecturer. By 1881, women were allowed to sit university examinations. Starting from 1921, they were awarded degrees rather than special certificates.

Henry Fawcett was a professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and Postmaster General in Gladstone’s government. (As Postmaster General, he introduced many innovations, including parcel post, postal orders, and licensing changes to permit payphones and trunk lines.)

Millicent Garrett also had a famous older sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was a pioneer of women in medicine. She attended lectures and surgical demonstrations, from which everyone sought to exclude her. Some years later she had been elected President of the East Anglian branch of that very British Medical Association which at first had debated whether women could pursue rigorous medical studies.

Growing up in such intelligent, broad-minded and forward-thinking family surely stimulated and developed Philippa’s mind. At the age of fifteen Philippa was showing such outstanding ability at mathematics that her parents employed a mathematics tutor. She also began to attend mathematics lectures both at Bedford College, the first British university to grant degrees to women, and at University College London where she studied pure and applied mathematics from 1885 to 1887. Philippa Fawcett’s outstanding results in algebra and geometry led to her being awarded a Gilchrist scholarship to study mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, the women’s College that her mother had helped to found.

In 1890, Fawcett was the first woman to obtain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams. The list of wranglers, that is, the candidates awarded a first-class degree, attracted a great deal of public attention. However, women at the time were not entitled to be called wranglers, even if they did well at Tripos (neither were they entitled to receive the bachelor degree upon graduation, regardless of their achievements). When the results of Tripos were announced, women were usually told that they scored “between nth and n+1th wrangler” or “equal to the nth wrangler”. Thus, Philippa Fawsett was “placed above the senior wrangler”.

Upon graduation, after one year of doing research, Fawcett was appointed as a lecturer at Newnham College.

In July 1901, at the time of the Boer War, the British Government sent Millicent Fawcett to report on the British concentration camps for Boer civilians. Philippa accompanied her mother. It was to be a significant event in her life.

In South Africa she saw that those in the concentration camps were keen to receive an education. Here she felt was something that she could contribute to, and after returning to Cambridge she applied to South Africa for permission to return to the country to help set up an education system in the Transvaal. Once the permission was granted she resigned her position in Newnham and returned to South Africa in July 1902 having been appointed as a lecturer in mathematics at the Normal School in Johannesburg. There she trained mathematics teachers.

In 1905 Fawcett was appointed principal assistant to the Director of Education of London County Council, even though she was not in the country to attend an interview. She held this position until her retirement in 1934.

Related post: What do you think of diversity?

My post from the previous year: It’s Ada Lovelace day!

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One Response to “Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Philippa Fawcett, English mathematician and educationalist”

  1. Ada Lovelace Day 2010 « Tania Samsonova’s Blog Says:

    […] My post for this year: Philippa Fawcett […]


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