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Philippa Garrett Fawcett, 1868 - 1948

In 1890, Philippa Fawcett scored the highest mark of all the candidates for the Mathematical Tripos. She was placed `above the Senior Wrangler' (that is, above the top first) because women were not then eligible for the Cambridge BA degree and therefore could not be classed as Wranglers.

At the time, when pressure was mounting for women to be allowed the vote, this achievement was regarded as astonishing, spectacular and deeply significant. National and foreign newspapers carried admiring headlines (`A Lady beats the Senior Wrangler', `Miss Fawcett's Honor: the sort of girl this Lady Senior Wrangler is' - from the Daily News and the New York Times, respectively) and wider issues were discussed in editorial columns.

Philippa Fawcett was the only child of exceptionally distinguished parents. Her mother was Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847 -1929), who was a leading suffragist and sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Britain's first women physician. Her father was Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) who held the Chair of Political Economy in Cambridge and was Postmaster General in Gladstone's government. The fact that he was blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25 in no way deterred him: one of Philippa's early memories was of skating in front of her father to Ely, whistling so that he could follow.

After her triumph in the Mathematical Tripos, Philippa was awarded a scholarship for a further year's mathematical study at Newnham and then became a College Lecturer, a position she held for ten years. In this time she published papers on the fluid dynamics. She left Newnham in 1902 to help with the development of education in South Africa, exciting work in a country struggling to recover from the Boer war. Returning in 1905, Philippa spent the rest of her working life with the London County Council, where she played a central role in the development of secondary schools. She retired in 1934, having attained the highest rank of any woman in the LCC. For most of this period, she lived with her mother in Gower Street, in the house upon which (according to Millicent Fawcett) congratulatory telegrams had `fallen like snowflakes in a storm' in 1890.

Philippa Fawcett maintained strong links with Newnham, attending Roll meetings even when in her late 70's. The Fawcett building (1938) was so named in recognition of the contribution made to Newnham by the family. She died on 10th June 1948, two months after her 80th birthday, just one month after the Grace that allowed women to be awarded the Cambridge BA degree received royal assent, and fifty eight years after coming above the `Senior Wrangler'.

Stephen Siklos, 2004

Further Reading

  • Philippa Garret Fawcett, in the Dictionary of National Biography, E.G. Millar
  • Philippa Fawcett and the Mathematical Tripos, S.T.C. Siklos, 1990 (Not in print, but may be inspected in the College Library)
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