A Lab of One’s Own – Dr Patricia Fara

A Zoom Talk by Dr. Patricia Fara based on her book ‘A Lab of One’s Own’


Dr. Fara started with a look at the contribution which the women students and graduates of Newnham and Girton Colleges made to the success of the First World War. Six hundred women from Newnham participated in a variety of ways. Many joined the Red Cross as nurses while others who had already qualified became doctors and engineers.  Ruth Dingley was the senior anaesthetist at the age of 20 at the First Eastern Hospital which was situated on the site now occupied by the University Library. Some undergraduates took on manual work by joining the Land Army or even shovelling coal in gasworks.


Some graduates worked on the development of explosives and ballistics. Edith Stoney was a mathematician who went on to study engineering and  specialised in X-rays. In 1914 she contacted the war office to offer her services in radiology but was refused because she was a woman so she went to the Scottish Women’s Hospital service who accepted her and she worked in a 250 bed hospital near Troyes funded by Girton and Newnham Colleges. Hertha Ayrton became a famous electrical engineer and invented a fan to blow poison gases out of the trenches but it was rejected because of the male attitudes towards women.


Dr. Fara was able to illustrate her talk with numerous photographs: one showed women operating large machine tools to manufacture huge shell cases for heavy guns and another showed women employed in the dangerous task of filling the shell cases. This exposed them to dangerous chemicals which turned their skin yellow and their hair green so they became known as the canary girls.


The talk then continued on to the fight for women’s right to vote which started in the 19th century and for the wider recognition of women’s talents. Many of the women referred to above were already members of the suffragist movement and they threw their energy and intelligence into the war effort which gave many the freedom to enjoy a career. As one said, ’Women were serfs but the war set them free.’ However, in 1919 an act of Parliament was passed compel women to give back the jobs to the men they had replaced. Ray Strachey helped set up the Society of Women Welders and an agency to help women find jobs.


Cambridge University was years behind other universities in granting women graduates a degree and this didn’t happen until 1948. The graduate with the highest mark in the Mathematics Tripos is known as The Wrangler and in 1890 Philippa Fawcett was the first women to achieve the top mark but she wasn’t even awarded a degree. The suffragists continued with their demonstrations to gain equality but even today women working in STEM ( science and technology)  jobs are paid less than men.


Keith Dixon