Cambridge & diversity

Philippa Fawcett: a pioneer in education

Philippa FawcettIn 1887 Philippa Fawcett arrived at Newnham College to study mathematics; in 1890 she scored the highest mark of all the candidates for Part I of the Mathematical Tripos, a subject considered by some at the time as ‘inappropriate’ for women. Following this unprecedented achievement she was placed ‘above the Senior Wrangler’ providing a timely reminder of the intellectual capabilities of women at a time when they were not admitted to Cambridge degrees nor entitled to vote.

Philippa Fawcett was the only child of exceptionally distinguished parents. Her mother was Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847–1929), a leading suffragist and sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain's first women physician. Her father was Henry Fawcett (1833–84), Chair of Political Economy in Cambridge and Postmaster General in Gladstone's government; the fact that he was blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25 by his own father proved no hindrance to his success.

By the age of fifteen Philippa was displaying outstanding mathematical ability. She took courses at Bedford College and University College London, and received private coaching. Philippa was rewarded with exceptional Higher Local Examination results and subsequently a Gilchrist Scholarship to study Mathematics at Newnham College.

Philippa was a quiet, hardworking and unassuming student. Along with her studies in mathematics, she took a keen interest in Physics, attending the practical experiments conducted by JJ Thompson. She played hockey for the Newnham first team, enjoyed walking and was an accomplished needlewoman. Philippa was also a member of the College debating society and was passionate about literature.

In 1890, Philippa Fawcett scored the highest mark of all the candidates for the Mathematical Tripos. A severe test of both mathematical skill and stamina, the Tripos was examined by twelve three-hour papers, taken in close succession and requiring in depth answers to complex and diverse questions. The subject was still largely considered to be a male bastion and Philippa's unprecedented success raised some uncomfortable questions. The Senior Moderator, who would be announcing the results, had to take advice on the exam classifications as Philippa's results exceeded those of all of her male counterparts. Women were not then eligible for a Cambridge degree and could not be classed as Wranglers—the title awarded to men placed in the first class in the Mathematical Tripos. It was agreed that she should instead be classified as ‘above the Senior Wrangler’.

The announcement of the results in Senate House was met with much cheering and celebration. Her success became the subject of national and international newspaper coverage and debate; interest was heightened by the political climate of the 1890s and the Fawcett family connection with the struggle for women's suffrage. Philippa's achievement helped to silence those who claimed that women were not sufficiently rational in thought to be allowed the vote.

Philippa's mathematical studies continued to bring success. In part II of the Tripos she was placed in the top division of the first class and was awarded a Marion Kennedy Scholarship at Newnham to continue her studies for a further year. Philippa subsequently became a College Lecturer, a position she held for ten years, impressing students with her speed, concentration and infectious delight in what she was teaching. During this time she also published papers on fluid dynamics.

In 1902 Philippa resigned her position at Newnham and moved to South Africa. As the country rebuilt following the Boer War, Philippa was involved in pioneering educational work, including the development of a system of farm schools and training for maths teachers. In 1905 she returned to London as the principal assistant to the Director of Education in the newly formed London County Council (LCC). Philippa was appointed without interview and at the same salary as a man would have achieved—a clear endorsement of her reputation and achievements. She spent almost 30 years at the LCC and attained the highest rank of any female employee. Amongst other things, she was instrumental in the development of secondary schools and the establishment of two teacher training colleges. She also worked closely with the London Day Training College, which was later transferred, under her guidance, to the University of London and became the Institute of Education.

Philippa died in June 1948, two months after her 80th birthday and just one month after the Grace that allowed women to be awarded the Cambridge BA degree received royal assent. Her obituary in The Times describes her as a pioneer in education, whilst friends and colleagues attested to her cleverness, hard work, humility and judgement.

This profile is predominantly based upon Philippa Fawcett and the Mathematical Tripos, Stephen Siklos (Newnham College, Cambridge, 1990).

Photo reproduced by kind permission of Newnham College.