Memorial Address: Dr Ida Busbridge


Ida Busbridge died on 27 December 1988 and, on Saturday 25 February 1989, a memorial service was held in St Hugh's College Chapel. A Memorial Address was delivered by the Principal Rachel Trickett and was published as 'Rachel Trickett, Memorial Address: Dr Ida Busbridge, St Hugh's Chronicle 1988-89 (62), 29-32'. We give a version of this address below.


Dr Ida Busbridge

Ida Busbridge was born on St Scholastica's Day, an appropriate patronage for what was to be her future and fruitful career. For she was a distinguished scholar in mathematics with a saintly dedication both to the pupils to whom she dispensed her learning and to the many people whose lives crossed with hers to their lasting benefit.

She came from an exceptionally talented family. Widowed in the first world war [Note by EFR. Actually it was 1909] her mother, a teacher in London, brought up her four children - two girls, Evelyn and Ida, and two boys, Percy and Walter - with a strict sense of their duty to their own talents and to the society for which they should employ them. In return they retained the strong devotion to family which so often accompanies such an upbringing. Mathematics and its companion disciplines were the predominant talent of these four Busbridges. Evelyn became a well-known teacher of mathematics; Percy, the brother who died young, took the top First in Engineering in London University; Walter was a physicist of distinction and held a senior post at Harwell research establishment.

Ida herself followed a brilliant career from the start. She was educated at Christ's Hospital, and won entrance to Cambridge but without the scholarship that would have enabled her to take up the place. She went instead as a scholar to Royal Holloway College where in 1929 she was awarded the Lubbock Prize for the best First Class honours of any Internal or External candidate. In 1933 she was awarded the M.Sc. with distinction and took up a Demonstratorship at University College which she held for two years. It was in 1935 that Dr Dorothy Wrinch, the eccentric and brilliant Cambridge mathematician who had managed single-handed the teaching of all women mathematics undergraduates in Oxford since the first world war, recommended that Ida be invited to share this responsibility with her when she (Dr Wrinch) was awarded a research appointment. St Hugh's was lucky enough to adopt Ida at this juncture, to present her for Matriculation and in 1938 to appoint her Lecturer in Mathematics. When Dr Wrinch left England for America in 1938 Ida inherited her responsibility for the teaching of women mathematicians in Oxford, and in 1945 was appointed Fellow and Tutor at St Hugh's.

I met Dorothy Wrinch by chance in 1963 at Smith College, Massachusetts. there she was living in a suite in one of the college dormitories, dividing her time between biochemical and mathematical research, and the pursuit of her insatiable appetite for news of Oxford or Cambridge. I had hardly arrived at Smith before I received an urgent summons to visit her, and had hardly passed her threshold when she turned to me and said, "You're the first St Hugh's person to have come this way since I've been here. Sit down and talk to me. Now, what about little Ida?" It was hard to associate the phrase with the tall, dignified and very official Fellow I had by then known for ten years; what about her indeed, except that she was a pillar of the College I belonged to. Dorothy Wrinch said impatiently, "She was quite simply the best woman mathematician I've ever met; brilliant and yet so capable and unassuming. At least there was a Fellowship for her at last." And she went on in characteristic ironic fashion to describe the position of women academics in her day at Oxford and to calculate for me the incredibly small sums that they earned. But that is part of the history of women's colleges and only of Ida Busbridge in so far as she undertook the whole direction of women's teaching in Mathematics and herself did most of that teaching for a salary which, through no fault of her impoverished College, barely topped £300 in 1945. "Well, she wouldn't complain", Dorothy Wrinch said, "She wasn't that sort." But Ida was not the sort, either, to see injustice done or to refuse to support any good and reasonable cause. What sort indeed was she? The question was first raised by Dorothy Wrinch's reminiscences, and has recurred as I have been pondering this address.

When she came to St Hugh's she made friends at once with Madge Adam, then doing research at Lady Margaret Hall, who remembers their playing tennis together on the LMH courts, and recalls Ida's love of music - the 'cello she brought with her to Oxford, and her singing in the Bach Choir. That friendship grew when Madge returned to her own College to teach physics, and from it derived Ida's developing interest in astronomy. She published papers with the Royal Astronomical Society in which she proceeded to translate mathematical expression for Plaskett's formulae, and she proceeded to translate P Kouganoff's book on Radiative Transfer [Note by EFR. Correct reference is 'V Kouganoff, Basic methods in Transfer Problems (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1952)'] amending and annotating so much of this work that colleagues felt it should have appeared under their joint authorship. It came out eventually as written "with the collaboration of Ida Busbridge" and caught the attention of Chandrasekhar, the authority on theoretical astronomy with whom she started a correspondence. Her own book on Radiative Transfer came out from Cambridge University Press in 1960. Ida's articles now began to appear regularly in the Astrophysical Journal, and she was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in recognition of her distinction in this field. [Note by EFR. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1948.] She was always willing and eager to apply her mathematics - to astrophysics or to aerodynamics - it was a symptom of her practical nature, her belief that ideas and talents should be put to use, especially if the use might benefit other. But she was rigorous in her basic instruction as a lecturer and a tutor.

Contributors to the Centenary history of St Hugh's recall both. "Miss Busbridge was an outstanding lecturer ... She always enumerated important points, and when she reached 100 the male undergraduates clapped and cheered." Or of tutorial, "Each week she assigned more work than the week before, and each week we obediently did it until one week my tutorial partner and I gasped in disbelief at our assignment. Miss Busbridge smiled and said she had been trying to find out how much we could cope with and now she knew." This regime produced its annual crop of Firsts in Maths for St Hugh's; it also set on their distinguished courses such mathematicians as Ann Cobb, Margaret Rayner, Mary Lunn, Gabrielle Stoy, Hilary Priestly, Sheila Oates, Christine Farmer and Lily Atiyah. Indeed her success as a tutor in attracting candidates and developing their passion for mathematics was such that Dame Mary Cartwright, writing to me this week to express her regret that she could not be with us today, added with characteristic honesty, "I don't know that I can altogether share the pleasure of Ida's increasing the number of women mathematicians at Oxford, for as often or not it was at the expense of the number of women mathematicians in Cambridge.

I am no mathematician [Note by EFR. Rachel Trickett was a novelist and literary scholar] and what I wish to conclude with is some more general picture of Ida's character, her contribution to the life of the College and those of so many pupils and friends. Like all good tutors she had a world beyond the academic - her home and family first; to them she was devoted, and we followed with Ida every stage of the successful career of her beloved niece Cherry. [Note by EFR. Charity A Busbridge, known as Cherry, was awarded an M.A. in 1959, and married the lawyer John Hopkins in 1964 while still a postgraduate student. Cherry Hopkins became a Director of Studies in law at Girton College, Cambridge and received an OBE.]

Then there was the pleasure in European travel, in music and especially in gardening. She was Custos Hortulorum at St Hugh's for many years, and we owe to her the Quincunx along St Margaret's Road, for the sets of which she paid, though admitting to the principal while she did so that she would "personally still have preferred a heather garden." This was one of many benefactions, all of them the mark of a consistent generosity, the instinct to give which was deeply rooted in her nature. Not only did she give freely and whenever it was possible anonymously to College - the lift to the Mordan Hall for instance was her gift, and a costly one - but she gave to institutions like St Margaret's House her willing services as well as money. Yet more significant were her private charities, always secret and imaginative. Because she believed so sincerely in the Christian duty to think of others before oneself, she, who had the rare and disciplined art of performing as instinctively as believing, concentrated all her intelligence and perception on determining the appropriate help for each case. These were many and varied, more than any of us will ever know, which is how she would have wished it. But pupils, colleagues, friends, men and women whose lives crossed hers and whose difficulties came to her notice were the recipients of what on the surface seemed like a brisk common-sense response to a particular problem but which was, as they often recognised, a deeply imaginative, magnanimous and unusual demonstration of love.

Ida would not, I think, have recognised the description I have just given. She saw herself as an active doer of the Word, but an unsentimental, unemotional one. She chose to appear, in the best sense, conventional. She liked to wear good, well-cut, tweed suits with a little appropriate luxury in her formal dresses; as she was always well-groomed, so she was always composed and even-tempered. I never saw her really angry. She avoided any sort of emotional expression so that at Governing Body meetings she was able to reserve an objective and judicious approach to every issue; she never appeared to be and never was partisan - except, I must admit, in the matter of her pupils. With friends and colleagues, too, she avoided any kind of emotional demand, and her detached equanimity sometimes seemed even to isolate or distance her a little. She expressed her views boldly but without any censoriousness. Her keen analytic, scientific curiosity enabled her to follow up any issue, academic or other, and her effectiveness here was aided by the fact that she was not by nature speculative. Together with all of these went a sense of her own competence and a willingness to take on any responsibility she knew she could fulfil.

Such qualities as I have described might suggest to you the pattern for an arbitrary and formidable woman, but Ida was neither, for she possessed the rare and enviable quality of genuine humility. She could laugh at herself - I never heard her laugh at others. She liked to present herself as plain, straightforward, sensible, and she was all of these. But the familiar image concealed a more subtle reality. The woman who took on so much responsibility so early without arrogating any credit to herself for it, but also without depreciating its importance, retired early to live with her loved sister [Note by EFR. Her sister was Evelyn May Busbridge] and to extend her talents and duties even further in her work for the Open University. This did not mean that she had decided on a new career. There was never an ultimate goal or ambition for Ida, only a series of recurring opportunities, responsibilities and duties perfectly performed and fulfilled. The reward for all this was not public acclaim or any great academic recognition of what were, after all, great gifts.

In spite of these exceptional powers, Ida had always put people and what she could do for then first, before even intellectual achievement. Her reward has been their love for her and perhaps what would have surprised but pleased her, the influence she has exerted, without any conscious intention, over their lives. It is fitting that we should commemorate her in this chapel which was the centre of her life in St Hugh's and where she worshipped regularly. And we commemorate her not only as a fine scholar and, in Milton's words, "the true warfaring Christian," but also as a well-loved woman.

Last Updated April 2020