Tag Archives: Oxford University

450th anniversary of the incorporation of Oxford University

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the 1571 Act of Parliament, of Elizabeth I, which formally incorporated the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Both had already existed for over three centuries but this confirmed their legal statuses as corporations.

In contrast to the colleges, the central University of Oxford has no charter of foundation. It is said to have emerged during the eleventh century when a  small group of teaching masters and their pupils set up home in hired lodgings in Oxford. Not yet the large corporate body we know now, the University was merely a group of individuals living and working in an already-established town. In 1214,  these individuals were placed under the jurisdiction of a Chancellor appointed by the Bishop of Lincoln and they quickly gained recognition as a corporate body.

Award of the Papal Legate, 1214

Award of the Papal Legate, 1214 (OUA/WPbeta/P/12/1)

First gaining in 1216 the title of ‘universitas’ (which meant, simply, any body of people have a distinct purpose and status), the University’s corporate status was further enhanced over the years by having its own statutes, officers and premises.

Until the reign of Elizabeth, the University had accrued its rights and privileges through the issue of royal charters. Each monarch keen to support the University would grant it a charter conferring yet greater powers and freedoms on it, as well as confirming those issued by their predecessors. Covering a range of areas, from law and order to street cleaning, these additional privileges were often obtained at the expense of the city authorities who saw their rights and privileges reduced as a direct result.

Relations in Oxford between the University and the city were not particularly good at the time the 1571 Act was passed. The city was still smarting over the charter of Henry VIII issued in April 1523 which had given the University many new privileges and powers over it, including effectively putting much of the city’s business under the control of the Chancellor of the University. His powers had extended over control of certain trades (eg the regulation of essential goods such as bread and ale) as well as the right to claim legal cases for the University’s own court, the Chancellor’s Court, bypassing the city’s legal processes.

Exemplification of the Act of 1571

Exemplification of the Act of 1571 for incorporating the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, 7 June 1571 (OUA/WPbeta/A/10)

The Act of 1571 paid little attention to the bad feeling between the two and was instead intent on strengthening the two universities and confirming the rights and privileges they had already acquired over the preceding centuries. In it Elizabeth confirmed the validity of all the charters, deeds and documents previously issued by her predecessors, namechecking, somewhat pointedly, the contentious charter of 1523. The two universities’ possessions and freedoms were ratified and protected, now placed on a more secure statutory footing. The Act also established the University’s official title as ‘the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford’ and gave it a common seal.

In what seems to be a small placatory move towards the city, the last paragraph declared that the Act would not ‘extend to the prejudice or hurt of the Liberties and Privileges of Right’ of the city of Oxford and town of Cambridge.

The exemplification, or copy, of the Act in the University Archives bears the seal of Elizabeth I, showing her seated and holding her regalia. Annotated over the years by University officials and administrators, it has key clauses underlined, notes in the margins and a couple of doodles.

Detail of seal of Elizabeth I, 1571

Detail of seal of Elizabeth I, 1571 (from OUA/WPbeta/A/10)

Although this Act of Parliament did not create the University, it is the highest confirmation of its corporate status. More information about the legal status and constitution of the University can be found on the main University website at  https://governance.admin.ox.ac.uk/legislation/preface-constitution-and-statute-making-powers-of-the-university

Geography in the Long Vacation

The Long Vacation in August has, since the 1880s, been used by University departments to hold summer schools and vacation courses in Oxford while the undergraduates are away. The School of Geography (established in 1899 as a joint venture between the University and the Royal Geographical Society) began holding its own biennial summer vacation courses in 1902.

Geography at that time was very much perceived as a masculine subject – men of high social status exploring far-flung places, climbing mountains in their shirt-sleeves. The students of the School of Geography at the turn of the century, however, were much more diverse than this. Women made up a large number of the School’s students.

Although women were still not able to become members of the University at this time, they could study for a number of diploma courses which were introduced in the early 1900s. These were usually in subjects not offered to undergraduates as part of the BA course: subjects such as public health, anthropology and geography. Women often outnumbered the men in geography diploma classes which began in 1900, although some parts of the subject, such as surveying, remained male-dominated. The women students were also often a little older than their male counterparts and from a wider range of social classes, many of them schoolteachers.

1904 vacation course details

Details of the 1904 vacation course (from OUA/GE/4A)

The summer vacation courses were designed chiefly for schoolteachers. Held to coincide with the school holidays, they were open to anyone. Those attending spent a couple of weeks in Oxford during August for a special course of lectures and practical work in geography. The courses included field trips (for surveying and map drawing) as well as excursions to local places of geographical interest.

Photograph of 1910 field trip

Vacation course field trip, nd (1910) (from OUA/GE/5A)

Women not only attended the summer vacation course in significant numbers – of the 196 students on the 1912 course, 119 were women – they were also heavily involved in its administration. The 1912 course was organised by Nora MacMunn, Demonstrator in Geography and only the second woman to be appointed to an academic teaching position in the University. She was aided by Fanny Herbertson, wife of the Director of the School, AJ Herbertson, a writer and unofficial Geography staff member for many years.

Photograph of 1924 vacation course

Staff and students at the 1924 vacation course (OUA/GE/5B/1)

Geography eventually became part of the BA course in 1932. From that date it became possible to obtain honours in geography as part of the undergraduate curriculum. As a result, however, both the diploma and the vacation courses were abolished – the new geography Final Honour School needed increased staff time to teach it. The number of women studying geography declined as it became a more masculine subject once again – dominated by men looking to move into the civil service or armed forces – and its connections to schoolteaching declined.

A group of women scholars from the School of Geography has been researching the often forgotten history of women geographers in Oxford including their role in the vacation courses. Links to their work, from which some of the information here has been sourced, are available at:

Centenary Event recording ‘A thing inexpedient and immodest’: women in the University of Oxford’s School of Geography now available online | News | School of Geography and the Environment | University of Oxford

‘Must it be a Man?’ Women’s contribution to the University of Oxford | University of Oxford Podcasts – Audio and Video Lectures

Series 2: Nora MacMunn (1875 – 1967) – Women in Oxford’s History Podcast (wordpress.com)

Relaunching the Oxford Botanic Garden

The Botanic Garden celebrates its 400th birthday on 25 July 2021, marked by the current Bodleian Library exhibition ‘Roots to Seeds’  https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/roots-to-seeds. The Garden itself has changed over the four centuries since it was founded in 1621 (as the Physic Garden) and its fortunes have fluctuated.

By 1834 it was in a pretty bad state. Charles Daubeny was elected Sherardian Professor of Botany early that year and one of the first things he did on becoming Professor was to launch an appeal to raise money for the Garden. Daubeny had taken over a space which he felt was no longer fit for purpose and which he wanted to restore to ‘the character which it possessed a century ago’.

Daubeny wrote a report to the Visitors of the Garden, the body in charge of it, on 14 March 1834 setting out the problems, along with a detailed discussion of what was needed to put things right. The accompanying ‘Plan of the Botanic Garden with the projected additions’, by Henry Jones Underwood, showed the Garden as it was along with Daubeny’s proposed improvements.

Plan of Botanic Garden 1834

Plan of the Botanic Garden with projected additions by HJ Underwood

Alongside basic improvements such as better soil and the removal of vermin-ridden greenery, Daubeny wanted to expand the Garden and create new areas within it. He planned a new garden (where the Gin Border is now) for ‘plants used in Medicine, Agriculture, or the Arts’; and an ‘Experimental Garden’ for ‘ascertaining the effects of soils, or of chemical agents, upon vegetation’.

His most damning criticism was directed at the buildings in the Garden. The greenhouses, built over a century ago, when ‘the mode of constructing Greenhouses was but ill understood’ were ‘extremely ill-constructed for most kinds of plants’. The Stovehouse was ‘so miserably constructed, that all hopes of cultivating rare and curious Exotics… must be abandoned’. In such bad repair, he recommended they simply be pulled down. Other buildings desperately needed remedial work; the bedrooms in the gardener’s cottage were extremely damp on account of being ‘contiguous to a stagnant ditch’.

Daubeny proposed a range of new buildings including new greenhouses, a lecture room and a new library for the books in the Professor’s study space (themselves significant collections of historical importance which were going mouldy from being stored in a converted greenhouse) as well as for the collections of ‘dried plants’ which he saw as being equally important teachings aids as the living plants in the Garden.

A subscription committee was formed to organise the fundraising. So committed was Daubeny to the appeal that his name appeared at the top of the list of those subscribers who had already pledged money, personally donating £100 (over £13,000 today). The subscription raised enough money to make significant improvements to the Garden, but as Daubeny later reported back to the subscribers, there was still so much left to do that he donated another £100 of his own money.

Letter to subscribers, 1834

Letter to subscribers to the Botanic Garden appeal, 1834

Once the improvements were in place, the Garden flourished, even after the new museum (now the Natural History Museum) was built in the Parks in the 1850s as a centre for the sciences. Daubeny and botany had stayed in the Garden. But within twenty years of Daubeny’s death in 1867, the study of botany had declined yet again. Those sciences based in the new museum were prospering whilst the Garden was not. It took further improvements and yet more investment in the Garden to bring it back to life.

Centenary of the first woman to receive an honorary degree

It’s often said that the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University was Queen Mary. She received a Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) by diploma on 11 March 1921. A degree by diploma is similar to an honorary degree, in that it’s conferred without the recipient having to study or sit any exams. The difference is that degrees by diploma are for royalty and heads of state only.

The first woman to receive an honorary degree proper was Charlotte Byron Green who received an honorary Master of Arts (MA) on 14 June 1921. Honoured for her work as a longstanding campaigner for women’s education in Oxford, Charlotte had been a founder member of the Association for the Education of Women (or AEW) which had promoted women’s education in Oxford since 1878. She had connections with Somerville and St Anne’s Colleges, as well as with the city of Oxford, having trained as a district nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Charlotte was shortly followed by the second female recipient, Elizabeth Wordsworth, former Principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh’s College (both women-only colleges at that time) who received her honorary MA on 25 October 1921. She was also honoured for her work promoting women’s education in Oxford.

It’s interesting to note that neither Charlotte nor Elizabeth received their degrees at Encaenia, and both were awarded the lesser honorary degree of MA (rather that the doctorates usually conferred at Encaenia). The two ceremonies appear to have been held with very little fanfare and no documentation from either survives in the University Archives. The only record is the decision made on 30 May 1921 by Hebdomadal Council, the University’s executive body, to confer the degrees on Charlotte and Elizabeth.

Given their ground-breaking nature, it’s perhaps surprising that more was not made of these events at the time. Although the University was finally acknowledging the achievements of these women in their long fight for equal academic opportunity (both were elderly by this time: Charlotte, 78, and Elizabeth, 81), there was maybe an irony in honouring them for achieving something which the University had spent so many years resisting.

In the new few years Charlotte and Elizabeth were followed by more eminent women receiving honorary MAs, nearly all of whom were honoured as campaigners for women’s education. The first honorary doctorate was not conferred on a woman until 1925 when Harvard astronomer, Annie Jump Cannon, received an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc).


Relativity and an honorary degree

Ninety years ago this month Albert Einstein, the great physicist and mathematician, visited Oxford University. He came to give the Rhodes Memorial Lectures, a short series of lectures on the subject of relativity held on three successive Saturday lunchtimes at Rhodes House. According to notices in the University Gazette, the lectures were for members of the University, but a few tickets were available to members of the public. The first lecture on Saturday 9 May entitled ‘The Theory of Relativity’ was reportedly packed out. When the lecture began, there were so many people present (over 400 according to The Oxford Times), that there was standing room only for some.

While he was here, the University grabbed the opportunity to give Einstein an honorary degree. Already a famous scientist by this date, he had been invited by the University to receive an honorary degree twice before: at the Encaenia in 1925 and again in 1930. He had been unable to attend both times; his doctor advising him against the trip on the second occasion. His letters declining the offers are gracious and elegantly written. But this third time, the University succeeded and Einstein wrote again on 12 May 1931 accepting the offer with thanks. The arrangements were hastily made and his Doctor of Science (DSc) degree was conferred on the morning of Saturday 23 May, shortly before he gave his third, and final, lecture.

Gazette notice May 1931

University Gazette notice of the conferral of Einstein’s honorary degree, 1931

Einstein delivered that final lecture, on the ‘Latest developments of the Theory’ later than day but to a slightly smaller crowd than previously. The Times reported that there were notable absentees in the audience. Maybe even Oxford’s brightest minds had found an exposition of relativity in German rather challenging.

Einstein left Oxford for Hamburg five days later but the blackboard which he used in giving the second lecture, on ‘The Cosmological Problem’, was kept by the University and remains today in the Museum of the History of Science.

Einstein's blackboard

Blackboard used by Einstein during his second lecture on ‘The Cosmological Problem’. © The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With kind permission of the Albert Einstein Archives.


Dame Hermione Lee archive now available

Photograph portrait of Professor Dame Hermione Lee, by John Cairns (2020)

Professor Dame Hermione Lee, by John Cairns (2020) (reproduced with permission)

The archive of British academic and biographer Professor Dame Hermione Lee is now available at the Weston Library, comprising the working correspondence and papers of a notable author, academic, and public intellectual, including literary papers, academic and scholarly papers, and papers relating to Lee’s journalism, public lecturing and broadcasting work.

Hermione Lee studied English Literature here at Oxford University and then taught at the College of William and Mary, the University of Liverpool, and the University of York before, in 1998, returning to Oxford, where for ten years she was the Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature, as well as the first female professorial fellow of New College. Between 2008 and 2017, Lee served as the president of Wolfson College, Oxford (founding the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing), and is now Emeritus Professor of English Literature. In 2013 she was made Dame for her services to literary scholarship.

Hermione Lee is a major figure in the academic study of life-writing and the archive reflects her teaching life as both a university academic and public lecturer and speaker, including research notes and lecture texts in her principle teaching areas of American literature, post-colonial and Commonwealth literature and 19th-21st-century biography.

To the wider public, Lee is perhaps best known for her broadcasting and biographies. The archive contains extensive research material and drafts for her award-winning biographies of Virginia Woolf (1996), Edith Wharton (2006) and Penelope Fitzgerald (2013). It also includes research and drafts for her biographies of Elizabeth Bowen (1981) and Willa Cather (1989); her OUP Very Short Introduction to Biography (2009); her collection of essays on life-writing, Body Parts (2005); as well as research and drafts for scholarly articles and essays and for Lee’s decades-long career as a book reviewer and literary journalist.

Lee first came to prominence as a journalist and commentator as the presenter of Channel 4’s flagship literary discussion programme Book Four from the day Channel 4 launched in 1982. She has since presented numerous TV and radio programmes for broadcasters including the BBC, some in partnership with her friend, the author Julian Barnes. The archive will be a useful resource for those interested in the history of literary programming in the UK, not least because it contains multiple shooting scripts.

Another feature of the archive is Lee’s meticulous research for that ephemeral book festival phenomenon: the public interview and round table discussion. It includes preparatory material for a series of encounters with Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, as well as authors including Margaret Atwood, Ben Okri, Joyce Carol Oates, John McGahern, Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie.

This extensive working archive of an academic, biographer and broadcaster is now available to readers in the Weston Library.

Cataloguing was generously funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

Newly available: Recollecting Oxford Medicine oral history project

Born digital material from the Recollecting Oxford Medicine oral history project has been donated to the Weston Library since the early 2010s, and the project is still active today with further interviews planned. A selection of interviews from the project are now available to listen to online,  via University of Oxford podcasts.

The Recollecting Oxford Medicine oral history project comprises interviews with Oxford medics, which provide individual perspectives of both pre clinical and clinical courses at the Oxford Medical School, medical careers in Oxford and other locations, and give an insight into the evolution of clinical medicine at Oxford since the mid 1940s.

The interviewees have worked in a range of specialisms and departments including psychiatry, neurology, endocrinology and dermatology to name a few. Episode 18 comprises an interview with John Ledingham, former Director of Clinical Studies (a position he held twice!), recorded by Peggy Frith and Rosie Fitzherbert Jones in 2012.  In episodes 11-12 we can learn about Chris Winearls – a self proclaimed ‘accidental Rhodes Scholar’ from medical school in Cape Town – his journey into nephrology and how he later became Associate Professor of Medicine for the university.

Listen to the Recollecting Oxford Medicine oral history podcast series online at https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/recollecting-oxford-medicine-oral-histories

In episode 1, John Spalding,  interviewed by John Oxbury  in 2011, discusses working under Hugh Cairns, firstly as a student houseman at the Radcliffe Infirmary during the second world war.  Spalding also recounts his experience of the initial conception of the East Radcliffe Ventilator, first being devised for use in treatment of Polio. In episode 13 we can listen to Derek Hockaday’s interview with Joan Trowell, former Deputy Director of Clinical Studies for Oxford Medical School, which amongst other topics covers her experience of roles held at the General Medical Council.

The majority of the interviews were undertaken by Derek Hockaday, former Oxford hospitals consultant physician and Emeritus Fellow of Brasenose College. The cataloguing and preservation of the oral history project is supported by Oxford Medical Alumni. The library acknowledges the donations of material and financial support by Derek Hockaday and OMA respectively.

Listeners may also be interested in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology Oral Histories, of which the archive masters are also preserved in the Weston Library.

Oxford College Archives

A new website for Oxford College Archives has been launched at https://oac.web.ox.ac.uk/.

Painting of Oxford students entitled 'Conversation Piece, Worcester College' by Edward HallidayThe site includes a general introduction to the archives held by the Oxford colleges, individual pages on most of the colleges (with further links to catalogues etc.) and links to associated archives in the City and University.  There is also an FAQ page, a glossary of all those odd Oxford terms, and a bibliography.  The site will be enhanced and updated regularly.

Scientists of the Future: Tim Berners-Lee

As mentioned in a previous post, Sir Walter Bodmer’s correspondence and research papers feature some of the most notable names from the world of science, and previous posts have drawn attention to just a few of those, including James Watson and Francis Crick. Yet, a particular strength of the archive is that not only does it contain papers relating to prolific scientists who were Bodmer’s contemporaries – and those active in an earlier age who inspired him – but also those starting out in their careers, the scientists of the future.

Both Walter and Julia Bodmer kept comprehensive administrative and research records relating to all researchers who passed through their laboratories at the Department of Genetics in Oxford (1970-1979), Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in London (1979-1996) and more recently the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford. As such, the papers provide a paper trail of ‘future’ scientists.

A particular highlight has been uncovering a file of correspondence with none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. From 1970-1979 when Walter Bodmer was first Professor of Genetics at Oxford University, and it was in 1975 that he received a letter from Berners-Lee, who was interested in gaining some computing experience in the Department of Genetics. The young Berners-Lee had joined Oxford University in 1973 as a physics student at Queens College (graduating in 1976). Accordingly, he joined Walter Bodmer’s Genetics Laboratory for a brief spell of ‘vacation work’ carrying out some computer programming for Bodmer. Berners-Lee indeed built his first computer while he was at student at Oxford.

Letter from Bodmer to Berners Lee

Letter from Bodmer to Berners-Lee

The correspondence file of Berners-Lee in Sir Walter’s archive contains several items of correspondence and annotated notes, mostly relating to Bodmer acting as referee. He later wrote to Bodmer in 1976, thanking him for the time spent working in the Genetics Laboratory, of which he said, ‘apart from being interesting at the time, it’s been a useful experience in choosing what I want to do (and probably getting the job eventually)’. Tim Berners-Lee went on to receive a knighthood in 2004 ‘for services to the global development of the internet’.

‘A True Geneticist’s Geneticist’

The papers of Sir Walter Bodmer have been intriguing, not only in terms of what they reveal about the history of science and genetics, but also for providing snapshots into the networks of co-operation, collaboration and relationships formed between prolific scientists. The large correspondence series of Sir Walter’s papers offer insight into how geneticists were continually learning from each other throughout their careers (and often disagreed), and through these exchanges of knowledge and ideas, lasting friendships were formed. The professional and personal correspondence between Walter Bodmer and Guido Pontecorvo (1907-1999) are one example of such a relationship.

As a young graduate student, Walter Bodmer travelled to Glasgow with his wife Julia and two young children, to spend time in the laboratory of Italian geneticist Guido Pontecorvo at Glasgow University. Pontecorvo was head of the new Department of Genetics in Glasgow, which he helped to establish (like Bodmer, who would later be instrumental in initiating the Department of Genetics in Oxford), and Professor of Genetics from 1955 to 1968.

Shortly after Bodmer completed his PhD in 1959, he became increasingly interested in the idea that quantitative genetics could be carried out properly on biochemical characters. Having learned about Pontecorvo’s work on Aspergillus, he hoped to travel to Glasgow and stay for a day or two to learn about this work and broaden his own outlook. In a report, Sir Walter wrote, ‘my reason for learning these techniques is a belief that they provide opportunities for a fundamental approach to the study of continuous quantitative genetics”. However, Pontecorvo firmly believed that basic biochemical and molecular genetics should be undertaken without the quantitative genetics. In addition, Pontecorvo was quite insistent that Bodmer would require several months (not days) to become acquainted with the techniques of biochemical genetics.

Dr. George Owen to Guido Pontecorvo, 28 November 1958

In 1987, Sir Walter looked back to 1959 when he first met Pontecorvo:

My first contact with him was nearly 30 years ago when, under the influence of my Professor, Sir Ronald Fisher, I had developed an interest in quantitative genetics but felt the need for biochemical analysis. It seemed that the Aspergillus system would be a marvellous basis for this, so I asked my formal supervisor, Dr. Owen, to write a letter, which I drafted, to Professor Pontecorvo about this. Perhaps I could visit for a day or so in the first instance and explore the applications of the Aspergillus system. In those days it would have been unusual for a graduate student to write directly to the Professor. I still have his reply. In it he said, “I strongly dislike the subject of quantitative genetics in general, and in particular in micro-organisms, which are so much better suited for the study of variations in fine genetic structure and its correlation with fine differences in proteins”. He was, of course, right.

Sir Walter has noted, “this was my first lesson in the value of persistence and calmness in relationships with others who may be much more senior than you are”.  It was this experience with Pontecorvo that gave Bodmer his first exposure to microbial genetics and modern genetics studies using the Aspergillus system (in addition to ideas on somatic cell genetics, perhaps the most significant influence on Sir Walter career and a major stimulus for the Human Genome Project).  According to Sir Walter, “Ponte’s pioneering insight that the asexual system of genetic analysis which he had developed for a fungus could be applied to human and animal cells in culture and laboratory” provided the fundamental background for later laboratory advances and applications at the molecular level. Indeed, the Bodmer archive contains a range of lab notebooks and papers from experiments using fusions to produce hybrids based on Pontecorvo’s method.

Sir Walter has written, “though my time in Glasgow was short, I count myself as one of Ponte’s students”. In fact, Guido Pontecorvo and Walter Bodmer became very good friends; they would have a lot of contact during Pontecorvo’s later career after he moved from Glasgow to the ICRF in London at the invitation of Michael Stoker (Bodmer’s predecessor as Director of Research at the ICRF). In 1987 Sir Walter initiated and organised a symposium and special edition of Cancer Surveys in honour of Pontecorvo on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

Francis Crick to Walter Bodmer, 18 May 1987 (Pontecorvo was known as ‘Ponte’ to his friends and colleagues).

Guido Pontecorvo has remained an important influence on the career of many geneticists, with Sir Walter referring to him as “a true geneticist’s geneticist”.