Oxford women tutors in the 1940s and 1950s

Margaret E Rayner wrote Women tutors in the 1940s and 1950s which was published in Roundup: The Oxford Mathematics Newsletter (Spring 2018), 6. We present a version of the article below.

In this note, Margaret Rayner, Emeritus Fellow of St Hilda's College, recalls the teaching of mathematics to women undergraduates during and after the Second World War.

In 1939 Dorothy Wrinch, the director of mathematical studies for women undergraduates from the early 1920s, left Oxford. All of her tutorial responsibilities were handed on to her assistant, a lecturer at St Hugh's, Ida Busbridge.

Dorothy Wrinch had conformed to the usual Oxford tutorial style: undergraduates taught themselves from books, lectures and their contemporaries, and bothered a tutor about details only when it was absolutely necessary. Ida Busbridge, a graduate of Royal Holloway College in the University of London, believed that this system was inappropriate for women undergraduates who had not experienced the rigorous preparation for Oxford available in many boys' schools. She set weekly problems for students and required written solutions to be handed in before the next tutorial, so that she could read and comment upon them. In tutorials she taught basic material, normally to two students, and at the end handed over the meticulous notes she had written during the hour. Not all students found this routine agreeable or stimulating, but students became less likely to give up on mathematics, and examination results improved.

There were thirty-one Finalists in mathematics in 1940; all were men. In 1941 the numbers were eleven men and four women, and in 1943 and 1944 eight women took Finals but there were no men. At that time a woman mathematician could spend three years at Oxford if she undertook to teach after graduation, while the others were allowed only two years. Undergraduates arrived in Oxford at any time of year to fit in with the call-up regulations. These comings and goings complicated arrangements for teaching in pairs.

Unlike William Ferrar, who taught the entire syllabus to Hertford men, Ida Busbridge sought outside teaching at a time when very few tutors were left in Oxford: in particular, U S Haslam-Jones at Queen's and H O Newboult at Merton were frequently enlisted.

In the immediate post-war years the number of women undergraduate mathematics continued to rise. The teaching situation eased when Somerville appointed as a lecturer Kathleen Sarginson (another Royal Holloway College graduate), who took over the teaching of applied mathematics. In 1947 Lady Margaret Hall appointed as a lecturer Anne Cobbe, who had been a student of Ida Busbridge while at Somerville and had gained a First in 1942, and Ida Busbridge and Kathleen Sarginson were elected to Fellowships in their colleges.

By the early 1950s Ida Busbridge was again overloaded with tutorial responsibilities and she rebelled (so it was said). St Hilda's and St Anne's were persuaded to create a joint lectureship which was taken by myself, a graduate of Westfield College in the University of London. By the end of the decade Mary Kearsley (another of Ida Busbridge's Somerville students) was a Fellow of St Anne's and I was a Fellow of St Hilda's. Anne Cobbe moved to Somerville as a Fellow when Kathleen Sarginson left Oxford, and Mary O'Brien, a physicist, directed the studies in mathematics at Lady Margaret Hall.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Ida Busbridge was the spokeswoman for the teaching of women undergraduate mathematicians at Oxford, both in the University and in schools, and completely changed how things were done. She maintained good relations with schools and took an active part in the Mathematical Association. (Both Ida Busbridge and Margaret Rayner were Mathematical Association presidents.) The entrance papers set by the women's colleges were easier than those set by the Cambridge women's colleges, and the news spread that a woman admitted to read mathematics had a good chance of reaching Finals. Schools began to enter sixth-formers who had not yet taken Higher School Certificate (later A level), and those admitted were as successful as their contemporaries a year older.

Last Updated April 2020