Historical heroines

By Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Women’s movement in to the workplace, particularly in to male-dominated disciplines like STEM, is thought to be a fairly modern event from the 1950’s onwards. This simply isn’t true – women have always worked.

Whether that’s (often lifelong) unpaid labour in at home, inventing and writing secretly or under male names, or their untold contributions to scientific or political projects, the stories of women are now being incrementally uncovered at the University of Edinburgh and beyond.

Male bias in history has meant their contributions have been hidden from our schoolbooks, and classical history has normalised and universalised the stories of men – but this does not mean that women were not there.

Women have always been scientists and data experts, in the home as well as the workplace. Why is it that we recognise men in white coats as scientists but not the complex chemistry of cooking and cleaning, the profound scientific knowledge involved with birthing and administering first aid or medicine to family and community, and the delicate financial calculations of running the home?

Feminist historians are radically reconceptualising our relationship to the past by challenging male-centric historical interpretations as an objective given. They are bringing all assumptions back under the microscope – take feminist archaeologists evidencing that early society women were hunters and fighters, as well as home makers.

Feminist historians also argue for the telling of  history to be recoloured with the emotional testimonies and impacts of historical events, and for emotions to be centred and valued as genuine data, using feminist epistemologies in our research practices. The feminist lens also reconfigures traditional ways of looking at work and society, such as the dichotomous separation of domestic and public spheres, and informal and formal work. This binary has served to undermine women’s labour, with feminists now telling us that our unpaid, domestic, reproductive and familial work has immeasurable economic value – various researchers make guesstimates, with the Office for National Statistics valuing women’s unrecognised labour at £1 Trillion a year in the UK alone. This work forms the backbone of the functioning of all facets of society and economy, from children participating in education to the resourcing of the home; the feeding and emotional support of ‘formal’ economy-participating husbands to care of elderly. Women are still disproportionately doing unpaid labour on top of their ‘formal’ labour – or contracting it out to often poorer and/or migrant women – bringing in to question the degree that gender equality has advanced in the UK.

So why is it now important to invest effort in to capturing the histories of women in STEM? Professor Melissa Terras at the University of Edinburgh tells DDI “It’s commonly thought that women aren’t interested in subjects like computing, but that’s not the case, and we see here fascinating histories of a range of women who made computing their careers. As much of Edinburgh’s economic activity moves towards data-driven innovation it is crucial to understand how important diversity is in the technology industry. We cannot build technology that serves all of society if only some of society is allowed to build it. Remembering our histories is part of the celebration of diversity”


Historical women to celebrate at Edinburgh

Following the internationally-celebrated posthumous medicine degrees awarded in 2019 to the Edinburgh Seven Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson Marshall and Emily Bovell, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the rich and revolutionary history of women in data.

The seven women studied at the University of Edinburgh, the first women to formally study medicine at a male university in Britain but were tragically prevented from graduation through acts of serious prejudice and institutional sexism, where male academics voted against them graduating. Despite being abused and pelted with mud by male students – known as the Surgeon’s Hall Riot where a plaque marks the women’s courageous protest for change – the students forced their way in to all-male anatomy exams. You can read more about the fascinating story of women in Scottish medicine here.


Gaps in Edinburgh’s her-story

Today, there is still archival material in the Centre for Research Collections about women in computer science at Edinburgh that has never been looked at. We do know something about the following science heroines:

Liverpool-born Kathy Humphry, born 1944, studied at Saint Andrews and became a Computing Officer at the University of Edinburgh and was an expert in using the university’s Implementation Language. For those who love oral history, an interview with her can be found here.

Rosemary Candlin was born in Plymouth in 1927 and went on to gain a degree in physics and a PhD in crystallography. In 1968, she joined the computer science department as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh after an eclectic journey consisting of different jobs, mainly in crystallography, and raising four young children. She was part of the genesis of the computer science programme here at Edinburgh, and became the Director before leaving in 1995 to work for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. You can also read an interview with her here.


Bletchley Park, World War II

There were 13 women who worked on the ‘Enigma’ programme at Bletchley Park, the secret base of the World War Two Codebreakers from 1938 – 1946 associated with the University of Edinburgh. Women formed a mind-blowing three quarters of the hacking, decoding and intelligence team.

In September 1938, a group of women codebreakers pretending to be holidaying friends rented the country house, Bletchley Park. Instead of leisure, they were busy working for MI6. More and more women codebreakers arrived over the years and the project ended up being staffed by over 150 people.

The codebreakers created methods to help Britain and its allies make sense of the German, Italian and Japanese military codes, producing intelligence in multi-faceted and complex ways including air, sea and land. This mostly-female team marked a turning point of the information age, employing the first computer Colossus and machines like Turing and Welchman Bombe. Their expert methods continue to the present day, used by GCHQ machines. Find out more about the fascinating history of these Bletchley women codebreakers here.


Irene Young

After WWII, Irene Young, one of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers employed as a translator in 1942, became a senior member of staff in the Library at the University of Edinburgh, where her writing and letters remain in the archive collections on the 6th floor.

She was originally from Edinburgh, born in 1919, and studied Language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in classics and Spanish and graduating with an MA in 1942. Irene was a high-flyer and was recruited by the Foreign Office the same year.

She died in 2017 at 98. She was married twice in her life – her first husband was a Lieutenant in the Air Service but sadly was missing in action in France in 1944, presumed killed.

We are lucky that she wrote her moving memoirs not so long before her death, published in 1990, Enigma Variations: A Memoir of Love and War.

Marjorie Jean Oswald Kennedy

Marjorie Kennedy also ended up working in the Library at our university – today, her papers are stored in the archives.

Kennedy was born in 1916 and went to the private Wellington School in Ayr. She was in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) from 1942-1945 during WWII. With her team at Bletchley Park, she unearthed incredible amounts of intelligence by decoding messages created using the German’s Enigma machine.

In the early 1980s, she lived in Marchmont, Edinburgh, and worked at Edinburgh University Library. Her husband Douglas Mickel, was a founding funder of the Mickel Fund in Edinburgh, an organisation funding charities in Scotland relating to relief of poverty and advancements in education. After his death, she substantially added to its funds but left behind a sum of 1.5 million, which was thought to be unspent inheritance. She died in November 2002 aged 87.

On the University of Edinburgh collections, Rachel Hosker tells DDI: our archives evidence a long established practice and drive for futures thinking, including documents discussing the value of vision and planning back in the sixties. They are a fascinating read for anyone interested in early data-driven innovation. One aspect we’re focusing on now is on the evidence for the work of women in this sector. The archives are the place we can find the narratives, perspectives and sometimes the silence of groups of people and their role in events. Both tell you something about people, working practices and technology change”



Launched in 2018 and led by PhD candidates Henry Dee and Tom Cunningham, UncoverEd is a collaborative and ‘decolonising’ research project here at Edinburgh funded by Edinburgh Global. It aims to situate the global status of the University of Edinburgh in its imperial and colonial context. A team of eight student researchers are creating a database of Edinburgh students from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Americas from as early as 1700, and writing social histories of the marginalised student experience.

Take a look at the captivating articles they have shared with Data Driven Innovation on Asian and women of colour scientists from our university past

Chemical Engineer Azar Moayeri Besharat

Peisu Xia “the mother of Chinese Computing” and Liming Yang, a nuclear physicist

Scientist Rupa Bai Furloonji

A huge thank you to Rachel Hosker, Professor Melissa Terras and UncoverEd who made this article possible.



Portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake
Photo credit: Sophia Jex-Blake. Centre for Research Collections University of Edinburgh

Read the latest Women in data

Image of Natalie Duffield

Natalie Duffield

CEO of InTechnology Smart Cities Ltd

Photo of Hoppers Society Members

University of Edinburgh Hoppers Society

Image of Samantha Rhynas

Samantha Rhynas

Head of Data at Effini & Girl Geek Scotland Leadership Team & PyData Edinburgh Organiser