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How I horrified a Cambridge head porter


Cambridge's famous first female graduate
Norman Greenwood Scientist
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Now, I said that there was Girton and Newnham, the women's colleges. They were started towards the end of the 19th century, but one of the rules was that only men, male students, could get degrees; women could not get degrees, they weren't full members of the university. But it was argued that as they did as well as the men, essentially, in the Tripos examinations, and often did better, there was no reason not to award them the status of a degree. So, they had the status of the degree without getting the degree, it was therefore a BA (titular), which certain dons, of course, inevitably abbreviated to BA (tit), but that was typical, I think, of those days when it was very easy to disregard women despite their achievements.

Now, that all changed, happily, and fortunately I was there whilst it was changing. It was in November of 1948, it had been decided, finally, that women should get full degrees, that if they had been given the BA titular degree, they could then get the substantive degree, and many of them took that. But they had to have a first woman, if you like, a token important first woman, to get the first degree, and that, in those days, was obviously Queen Elizabeth. And to make it quite clear, that's Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George, the Queen Consort, who later became the Queen Mother, who later lived to be 101. But she was the first woman to graduate. She was given the first substantive, I think it was an LLD degree, and after that, women could take a degree. So that is one example of growing up fast, I think, from a situation which, frankly, was there because it was there. There's no point in getting upset about things which happened a long time ago, the important thing is to learn, politically, how to alter them, and that is what was done on that occasion.

Norman Greenwood (1925-2012) was born in Australia and graduated from Melbourne University before going to Cambridge. His wide-ranging research in inorganic and structural chemistry made major advances in the chemistry of boron hydrides and other main-group element compounds. He also pioneered the application of Mössbauer spectroscopy to problems in chemistry. He was a prolific writer and inspirational lecturer on chemical and educational themes, and held numerous visiting professorships throughout the world.

Listeners: Brian Johnson

Professor Brian FG Johnson FRS, FRSE, FRS Chem, FAcad Eu, FAS. Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Edinburgh 1991-1995, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry University of Cambridge 1995-2005, Master Fitzwilliam College Cambridge 1999-2005. Research interests include studies of transition metal carbonyls, organometallic chemistry, nano- particles and homogeneous catalysis. Professor Johnson is the author of over 1000 research articles and papers.

Tags: Girton College, Newnham College, 1948, Queen Elizabeth, King George

Duration: 2 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2011

Date story went live: 25 November 2011