Series 1: Ida Busbridge (1908-1988)

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Ida (left) and friend Madge Adam, punting at Oxford c.1938

This podcast explores the life and impact of Dr. Ida Busbridge, a mathematician and tutor at St Hugh’s College between 1936 and 1970.

Ida came from a family of mathematicians. After her father died during the First World War, she won a London County Council scholarship to attend Christ’s Hospital school. She later studied maths at Royal Holloway and University College London, where she excelled academically.

When Ida began a DPhil at St Hugh’s College in 1936, she was one of only 17 women reading for a PhD across the whole university. Until 1939, when she submitted her thesis, she was an advanced research student and helped with undergraduate teaching. Over the next six years she was occupied as a lecturer and assistant tutor, essentially working as a full College tutor, though without the title. During the second world war she turned down war work to continue teaching maths, a responsibility which she regarded as an important national contribution in itself. Towards the end of the war she became frustrated by the lack of opportunities for female academics in Oxford and applied for a post in Cambridge. In response, perhaps as the fear of losing her, St Hugh’s College finally made her a Fellow and Tutor in 1945.

During her time teaching at Oxford, Ida worked to improve access to university for women from a variety of backgrounds, increasing the number of female maths students at Oxford. Former colleagues and students recall her non-traditional approach to interviewing. She would often overlook lower grades if she felt that students were capable. In this period pupils attending prestigious fee-paying schools would often spend three years in their sixth forms before going to university and many received extensive coaching for Oxford interviews. Grammar schools, on the other hand, usually only had the resources to keep girls on for the standard two years which meant they were often less prepared than their privately educated counterparts. Ida was very aware of this difference and of the impact different schooling and backgrounds could have.

Ida acted as a mentor, helping students to make friends and guiding them through their work and exams. Interviews with former students reveal that her legacy was both academic and intensely personal. The women recall sherry parties in her rooms, designed to integrate first-year students, and ‘strawberry teas’ on the lawns of St Hugh’s College after exams. A few students remember her using her own car to drive girls who suffered from hay fever to their exams at the Examination Schools on the High, in an attempt to avoid them suffering during their exams. One student remembers Ida being “an amazing teacher” and “an amazing mathematician”, but at the same time she apparently “scar[ed] [her] rigid every week”. While she is often seen as playing a key role in promoting the study of maths, it seems Ida also invested in her students’ wellbeing. She gave advice not only on her female undergraduates’ careers but also their relationships.

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Ida teaching in the College grounds, c.1957. Image by kind permission of the Principal and Fellows of St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

She kept in touch with a huge number of former students, retaining an interest in their lives and giving them support. This created something of an unofficial community of ‘Busbridge’s girls’. Many ended up working in jobs related to maths and some found academic positions through her. Douglas Quadling, at the Cambridge Institute of Education, has estimated that at the time of her retirement, there were between 50 and 60 maths teachers in key positions influenced by Ida.

In 1986, two years before her death, St Hugh’s established the Ida W. Busbridge Fellowship in Maths after it received a donation from the husband of a former student. While the identity of the man and his wife remained anonymous, it seems that she had been greatly influenced by Ida. Letters between Ida’s sister and a friend show that she was delighted with the creation of the Fellowship.

During her lengthy career, Ida also held a number of other roles, including Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, Keeper of the Gardens at St Hugh’s, and counsellor at the Open University.

Ida made key contributions to the world of maths, publishing on radiative transfer, and became President of the Mathematical Association in 1964. She was one of only a few women to have held the position. The way in which Ida conceived her work can be seen in her presidential address. She explained that her aims were to “give every girl or boy the opportunity to develop his or her mathematical powers to the full”, and to “foster those of special ability for the sake of the country as a whole for the advancement of knowledge”. She envisaged her roles in Oxford and elsewhere as ways of extending opportunities available to individuals and as an important national duty.

Bibliography

Bruley, Sue, Women in Britain since 1900 (London: Macmillan, 1999).

Education: Historical statistics, House of Commons Library, SN/SG/4252 (November 2012).

Friedman, E. Clare, Strawberries and Nightingales with Buz: The Pioneering Mathematical Life of Ida Busbridge, 1908-1988 (San Bernardino: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).

Trickett, Rachel, “Obituary: Dr. Ida Busbridge”, St. Hugh’s Chronicle 1988-89 (62), pp.29-32.

Researcher Bethany White conducted interviews with anonymous participants on 8 and 10 April 2015.

With thanks to St Hugh’s College Archive for the following resources:

Busbridge, Ida W., “Historic Notes on Women Mathematicians in Oxford”, Research Notes, S/2/2/18/9/6-10, St. Hugh’s College Archive.

Busbridge, Ida W., “Memories of RHC, 1926-29”, S/2/2/18/9/6-10, St. Hugh’s College Archive.

Letters from old students, Research Notes, S/2/2/18/9/1-5, St. Hugh’s College Archive.

Lunn, Mary, “Account of Ida Busbridge sent to the Independent on 4th January 1989”, Ida Busbridge Staff File, SHG/S/2/2/18/8, St Hugh’s College Archive.

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Bethany White is a DPhil student in History at Oxford University.

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