Agnes Scott College

Philippa Garrett Fawcett


April 4, 1868 - June 10, 1948

Became, in 1890, the first woman to score the highest mark of all the candidates for the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge University. Women at that time were not eligible for a Cambridge BA degree, however. According to her biography at Newnham College [1]:

"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 (...from the Daily News and the New York Times, respectively) and wider issues were discussed in editorial columns."

In her article "And what became of the women?", Caroline Series writes the following [3]:

Philippa Fawcett came of a distinguished family. Her father Henry rose to be Postmaster General under Gladstone and was the man responsible for introducing the parcel post. Her mother Millicent, later Dame Millicent, was one of the leaders of the non-violent campaign for women's votes. Philippa herself was, in the words of one her Newnham contemporaries, "modest and retiring almost to a fault". She lived a very regular and quiet life and was coached by Mr E. W. Hobson of Christ's, a Senior Wrangler himself and judged to be the second best coach. She also played hockey. Philippa did outstandingly well in the exams she sat in the second year, with 75 more marks than the top Trinity man. Everyone anticipated a brilliant result in the Tripos.

The scene in the Senate when the results were to be announced is recorded in a letter written by Philippa's second cousin Marion: "...the gallery was crowded with girls and a few men...The floor was thronged by undergraduates... All the men's names were read first, the Senior Wrangler was much cheered... At last the man who had been reading shouted 'Women'. The undergraduates yelled 'Ladies' and for some moments there was a great uproar. A fearfully agitating moment for Philippa it must have been; the examiner could not attempt to read the names until there was a lull. Again and again he raised his cap, but he would not say 'ladies' instead of 'women' and quite right I think... At last he read Philippa's name, and announced she was 'above the Senior Wrangler'. There was great and prolonged cheering; many of the men turned towards Philippa, who was sitting in the gallery with Miss Clough, and raised their hats. When the examiner went on with the other names there were cries of 'Read Miss Fawcett's name again' but no attention was paid to this. I don't think any other women's names were heard, for the men were making such a tremendous noise..."

On her arrival back at College, Philippa was greeted by a crowd of fellow students and carried into Hall. Flowers, letters and telegrams poured in throughout the day. That evening there was an impromptu college feast and she was carried three times round a bonfire on the hockey pitch. The triumphal lay, whose first verse heads this article, was composed in her honor. The story made the lead in the Telegraph the next day: "Once again has woman demonstrated her superiority in the face of an incredulous and somewhat unsympathetic world... And now the last trench has been carried by Amazonian assault, and the whole citadel of learning lies open and defenceless before the victorious students of Newnham and Girton. There is no longer any field of learning in which the lady student does not excel."

Word of Fawcett's accomplishment spread half way around the world to New Zealand. In the 1890s, William Aldis, the first professor at Auckland University College (now the University of Auckland) within the University of New Zealand and himself a Senior Wrangler, referred to Fawcett's achievement in a speech at a graduation ceremony. He is reported to have said that "it will take ... Cambridge 40 years to get the idea of women's graduation through their thick skulls" and that in the meantime the University of New Zealand should give Miss Fawcett a degree without further examination. This idea was supported by many people but never happened.

There followed for Fawcett a year for Part II of the Tripos in which she was placed in the top division of the first class, and then a year of research at Cambridge under the auspices of a Marion Kennedy Studentship. This lead to publication of a paper on fluid dynamics in the Quarterly Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics in 1893 [Abstract]. Fawcett served as a College Lecturer in mathematics at Newnham College for 10 years. At the time of her death, a former student reminisced [4]:

"What I remember most vividly of Miss Fawcett's coaching was her concentration, speed, and infectious delight in what she was teaching. She was ruthless towards mistakes and carelessness, and most patient if one was really trying one's hardest. The standard of work she expected was unattainable, but it grew impossible to aim lower.

She taught a subject, not a syllabus, and never mentioned examinations; but one knew one was in safe hands. Once only she discussed the Tripos with me, to my surprise and consternation: it was because she was going abroad and I was losing her as coach.

My deepest debt to her is a sense of the unity of all truth, from the smallest detail to the highest that we know.

Fawcett spent 1902-1905 as an assistant in the Transvaal Education Department in South Africa helping to establish schools in that country, then returned to England as the Chief Assistant to the London County Council Director of Education. She was later promoted to Assistant Education Officer for Higher Education. Throughout her career Fawcett was greatly involved with the reorganization of secondary schools and starting new ones in the London area.

The following anonymous poem was written in 1890 to celebrate Fawcett's achievement on the Tripos, and was reprinted in [6, pp33-34].

Hail the triumph of the corset
Hail the fair Philippa Fawcett
Victress in the fray
    Crown her queen of Hydrostatics
    And the other Mathematics
Wreathe her brow with bay.

If you entertain objections
To such things as conic sections
Put them out of sight
    Rather sing of the essential
    Beauty of the Differential
Calculus tonight.

Worthy of our approbation
She who works out an equation
By whatever ruse
    Brighter than the Rose of Sharon
    Are the beauties of the square on
The hypotenuse.

Curve and angle let her con and
Parallelopipedon and
    Few can equal, none can beat her
    At eliminating theta
By the river Cam.

May she increase in knowledge daily
Till the great Professor Cayley
Owns himself surpassed
    Till the great Professor Salmon
    Votes his own achievements gammon
And admires aghast.


  1. Siklos, Stephen. "Philippa Garrett Fawcett, 1868-1948," Newnham Biographies, Newnham College, Cambridge, 2004
  2. Dash, Mike. "The Woman Who Bested the Men at Math," Smithsonian Magazine, posted October 28, 2011.
  3. Series, Caroline. "And what became of the women?", Mathematical Spectrum, Vol. 30 (1997/8), 49-52.
  4. Newnham College Roll Letter, February 1949, 46-54. Newnham College Archives.
  5. Newnham College Register, Vol. 1, 1871-1923, p7. Newnham College Archives.
  6. A Newnham Anthology, Edited by Ann Phillips, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  7. "Miss Fawcett's Honor; the sort of girl this lady Senior Wrangler is. Significance of her success to the movement for higher female education – a friend's account," New York Times, New York, N.Y.: June 24, 1890, pg. 6.
  8. Private email, John Butcher, Emeritus Professor, University of Auckland
  9. Author Profile at zbMath
  10. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of The Principal and Fellows, Newnham College, Cambridge