Newnham College in the snowJasmine Charles with permission for Varsity

If you’ve ever been on a punting tour along the college backs, you’ve likely heard your tour guide mention the famous alumni of each college as you pass, predominantly scientists – Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, and Alan Turing… These are also the first names that crop up when you Google the question. Most of the names you’ll read and recognise are male. Each has made revolutionary discoveries that should without question be celebrated, but if you ask a Cambridge student to name more than one famous female scientist who went to Cambridge, the majority would struggle. This is not because of a lack of female scientists, nor a lack of groundbreaking discoveries from them – simply a lack of publicity.

Let us turn the spotlight to a few of the many inspirational female scientists who studied at Cambridge, exploring the stories of their careers and celebrating the difficulties they overcame to get to where they did.

Hertha Ayrton, matriculated at Girton College in the 1870s

With 26 patented inventions, engineer and suffragette Hertha Ayrton was without a doubt one of the most notable female engineers of her time. Her interest and dedication to the field began when she moved to live with her cousins after her father’s death. They introduced her to mathematics and science, and she set her mind on pursuing them as a career.

“She was not awarded a degree, as Cambridge did not grant them to women until 1948.”

Her childhood friend Ottilie Blind encouraged her to study for the Cambridge entrance examination. She passed and applied to study mathematics at Girton College, supported by the writer Mary Ann Evans. During her time at Cambridge, Ayrton created a remarkable legacy, founding a mathematical club and the Girton fire brigade, and leading the choral society. In 1880, when Ayrton finished her studies, she was not awarded a degree, as Cambridge did not grant them to women until 1948.

Despite this, she used her education to invent the line divider, a tool widely used by architects and engineers to segment a line into equal parts. She also authored a paper on electric arc lighting, lighting which requires the electrical breakdown of gas to work, which earned her the first female position at the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Later in life, she was awarded the 1906 Hughes Medal in physics for her research, but her legacy doesn’t end there. Ayrton was a founder of the International Federation of University Women, advocating for women’s empowerment and education all over the world, which remains active today.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin , matriculated at Newnham College in 1919

With her Ph.D. thesis being described as “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy” by astronomer Otto Struve, Cecilia Payne is a shining example of a scientist who stayed focused on her goals and ambitions despite discouragement from the people around her. While studying at St Paul’s Girls School, she was advised to abandon her dream of studying science by her music teacher, the renowned composer, Gustav Holst, in favour of pursuing music. Nevertheless, she remained steadfast in her goals, winning a full scholarship to study science at Newnham the next year.

“Payne’s work was fundamental to modern astrophysics”

During her studies at Cambridge, she watched a lecture by astronomer Arthur Eddington, which changed her life forever. She described it as “a complete transformation of my world picture. [...] My world had been so shaken that I experienced something very like a nervous breakdown.” It was then that Payne knew she wanted to focus on astronomy. After her studies, she moved to the USA without a degree (women were still not awarded degrees from Cambridge!) and earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard.

Her thesis bravely argued that stars are composed largely of hydrogen and helium – which contradicted the widely accepted ideas of the time. Her argument was not accepted for years until another astronomer, Henry Norris Russel, came to the same conclusion in 1929. Although he briefly accredited her research in his paper, he is still generally seen as the scientist behind the discovery. Despite the lack of credit given, it is indisputable that Payne’s work was fundamental to modern astrophysics.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, matriculated at New Hall in 1969

As her father designed the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland, Bell Burnell often found herself talking to the staff on her numerous childhood visits and frequently lost herself in her father’s books on astronomy. At a time when only boys could study the sciences, and girls were expected to learn to cook and sew, it was only because of her parents challenging her school’s policies that she was allowed to pursue an education in astronomy.


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In 1969, she joined Cambridge at New Hall, now Murray Edwards College. As a postgraduate, Bell Burnell was monitoring chart-recorder readings, when she detected a “bit of scruff”, which appeared at regular intervals. Astrophysicist Thomas Gold later discovered the source of these ‘radio pulars’ to be a rapidly rotating neutron star. Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars had vast applications in the scientific field, including precise clocks and navigation systems.

The discovery was awarded the 1974 Physics Nobel Prize, however, she was sidelined, with her supervisor and another astronomer, both male, receiving the award. She described the interviews surrounding her discovery as having a “disgusting”6 format – her supervisor was asked about the scientific questions, whereas she was asked how many boyfriends she had and even asked to undo some of her top buttons for photographs. Despite the lack of credit for her hard work and differential treatment for being a woman, Bell Burnell continued her research later in life and is currently the Chancellor of the University of Dundee.