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. Read the rest of this entry »