(1858-1942) – Principal of Somerville 1907-1926Learn More
Emily Penrose went to school in London before moving to Athens with her family. She came to Somerville in 1889 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics), learning Latin and ancient Greek from scratch. At the time she was studying, the first examinations in her degree (Honour Moderations) were not open to women, so Penrose moved straight on to Finals without taking any other examinations. In 1892 she became the first woman to achieve First class honours in the subject, although Oxford did not yet allow women to take degrees.
On finishing her studies, Penrose was offered a combined post as tutor, librarian and secretary by the then Principal, Agnes Maitland. Penrose did not accept the post, moving instead to London and working as a lecturer for a time before being appointed Principal of Bedford College in 1893. In 1894, she was also appointed to the post of Professor of Ancient History there (though at no extra stipend). In 1898 she moved to Royal Holloway College, and she returned to Somerville as Principal in 1907.
Under Penrose’s leadership, Somerville began to admit only women who would read for full degree courses even though they could not yet take the actual degree. In 1908 she introduced an entrance examination for the college. She was also responsible for the appointment of more tutors, and for their integration into Somerville’s governing Council. During the First World War, she oversaw Somerville’s temporary move to Oriel College. Penrose was involved in establishing a group to work towards the admission of women to full membership of the University, and she was instrumental in ensuring that in 1920 the University of Oxford granted women the right to matriculation and to all degrees. She also worked for the cause of education outside Oxford, serving on the Advisory Committee on University Grants (the body which advised on the distribution of funding to British universities) and as the only female member of the Royal Commission on University Education in Wales in 1916. On her retirement in 1926, Penrose became the second women to receive an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford (the first had been Queen Mary in 1921) and in 1927 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) for services to education.
Did you know? One Somervillian, the medievalist Helen Waddell, expressed the view of many when she said to Penrose, ‘We feel it was you who made it inevitable that women should be recognised by the University.’
(1897-1970) – Literary criticLearn More
Enid Starkie was born in Dublin and educated by a series of governesses (of whom one was French, sparking Starkie’s profound love of France). Starkie was also a talented pianist, but her father discouraged her from taking up a career in music and, to please him, Starkie came to Somerville in 1916 to study Modern Languages.
After her studies, Starkie worked as an assistant lecturer at Exeter University, returning to Somerville in 1928 when she was appointed the Sarah Smithson Lecturer in French Literature. She was elected a fellow of the college in 1935 and in 1946 she was appointed Reader in French Literature at Oxford. Starkie wrote authoritative critical works on Baudelaire (1957), Rimbaud (1947) and Flaubert (1967) and her other work included studies on Verhaeren, Gide and Peter Borel. She was known for being warm, tough and intelligent, and she could also be eccentric and unpredictable (an article in Time magazine described her as ‘a brilliant Rimbaud scholar who pub-crawls about Oxford in bright red slacks and beret while smoking cigars’). Starkie received a Doctorat of the Sorbonne and the French Academy literary prize and in 1958 she was elected to the Légion d’Honneur. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1967.
Did you know? Enid Starkie successfully campaigned for the Oxford Chair of Poetry to be held by poets rather than critics. It was also her campaigning which led to W.H. Auden’s election to the Chair in 1956.
Journalist and television presenterLearn More
Esther Rantzen went to school in the US and London before coming to Somerville in 1959 to study English. At Oxford she performed with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) and shortly after graduation she was recruited by the BBC.
Rantzen worked as a research for a number of current affairs programmes before moving to present the BBC series That’s Life! in 1973. She became the show’s presenter for 21 years. She founded the charities ChildLine (promoting child protection) in 1986 and The Silver Line in 2012 to combat loneliness in the lives of older people. In 1988 Rantzen created a new television series called Hearts of Gold which celebrated acts of outstanding kindness or courage.
After the death of her husband, film-maker Desmond Wilcox, Rantzen made a landmark programme on palliative care. She has campaigned to raise awareness of ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) and was the creator of the ‘Children of Courage’ segment for BBC’s Children in Need. In 1991, she was awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting and in 2015 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) for services to children and older people. Rantzen is Patron for the charity Operation Encompass and a Trustee for the charity Silver Stories. She is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville.
Esther Rantzen on Somerville ‘It was unsnobbish, it was egalitarian, it was a bit left wing, it was a bit… out there… Somerville is tolerant, broad-minded, celebrates diversity of all kinds.’
Lawyer, public speaker and climate activistLearn More
Farhana Yamin grew up in London and came to Somerville in 1983 to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). After graduation, Yamin qualified as a solicitor and worked as an environmental lawyer, becoming a climate change and development policy expert. In 2001, she helped to deliver the Marrakech Accords, the international rules needed to complete the Kyoto Protocol and she has been advising leaders and countries on climate change and development policy for 30 years.
Yamin has taught in UK universities since 1995, including as a Visiting Professor at University College London. She stepped back from the world of academia and UN negotiations in 2018 to focus on non-violent civil disobedience and social justice movements challenging capitalism. As a Political Coordinator of Extinction Rebellion for a year, Yamin played a key role in the XR April 2019 protests, gluing herself to the Shell HQ offices in London, alongside thousands of other activists. She is a champion of community-based action and co-founded Camden Think & Do, where she is experimenting with radical inclusion & concepts of spatial justice by supporting communities create pop-up action hubs in high streets and public spaces. She also sits as an expert on various Commissions including Camden Renewal Commission and IPPR’s Commission on Environmental Justice. She serves as trustee or an adviser to a number of organisations working on the intersection of social, racial and ecological justice, including Greenpeace UK, WWF-UK and Julie’s Bicycle an organisation working on supporting artists and the cultural sector tackle climate and sustainability. Yamin is currently a Senior Associate at the UK think thank company Systemiq and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).
(1941-2021) – Psychiatrist and health policy expert, Principal of Somerville 1996-2010Learn More
Educated in London, Fiona Caldicott studied medicine and physiology at St Hilda’s College, Oxford before going on to work as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. She served as President of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and went on to be the first woman Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists before becoming its first woman President in 1993. She was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1996, the year she also became Somerville’s tenth Principal. During her time at Somerville Caldicott also served as Pro Vice-Chancellor for Personnel and Equality at Oxford. Known affectionately as ‘Dame Fi’ by Somerville’s students, she placed great importance on ensuring that Somerville was a supportive environment for its members.
After her term as Principal, Caldicott chaired the National Information Governance Board for Health and Social Care, investigating how patient data was used in the NHS. The resulting Caldicott Principles enshrined a lasting means of balancing the information needs of medical research with the rights of patient confidentiality. From 2009 to 2019, Caldicott was Chair of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS trust. She was made an Honorary Fellow of both St Hilda’s and Somerville, and in 2018 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
You can read a record of condolences shared with Somerville on the occasion of Dame Fiona’s death here.
Did you know? Almost as famous as ‘Dame Fi’ was her beloved feline companion Pogo, who took up his official position as college cat at the same time that his mistress became Principal. At a gaudy in 2018, the mere mention of Pogo’s name prompted a standing ovation.
(1881-1961) – Literary scholar, Principal of Somerville 1931-1945Learn More
Helen Darbishire was born in Oxford and came to Somerville in 1900 to study English. She became a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway College, returning to Somerville in 1908 to take up the position of tutor in English. Her work as a literary scholar focussed on Wordsworth and Milton and she was appointed a University Lecturer at Oxford, later becoming the first woman to be chair of the faculty board of English at Oxford. In 1925-6 she held a visiting professorship at Wellesley College.
Darbishire was elected Principal of Somerville in 1931, resigning her University lectureship but continuing to teach and lecture. While some had been concerned that she might be too academic to make a success of the principalship, she in fact brought a much-needed eye for detail, a warmth of personality and a zest for new projects that proved energising. Her tenure saw the expansion of the college, with major building works (one as a result of an endowment from Winifred Holtby) and the recruitment of tutors including Dorothy Hodgkin (who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry).
Darbishire was a trustee of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere, and in 1943 she became Chair of Dove Cottage, working to make it a study centre. In later life, she moved to the Lake District.
Did you know? Helen Darbishire had no difficulty at all in maintaining her academic research alongside her Principalian duties: when an item of college business required urgent attention, a messenger would take the necessary documents to Darbishire’s customary seat in the Bodleian.
(1917-1984) – Prime Minister of India 1966-1977 and 1980-1984Learn More
Educated in Indira Gandhi came to Somerville in 1937 to read Modern History. She was only able to stay for one year – ill health forced her to leave – but her memories of Somerville were powerful and emotionally warm (if not meteorologically so: she found her room appallingly cold).
In 1941, she returned to India. Acting as official host and assistant during her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime ministership (1947-1964), Gandhi began to establish herself as a politician in her own right’. In 1966, as leader of the Congress party, she was elected Prime Minister. She won three consecutive terms of office, steering the country through the war with Pakistan and the declaration of Bangladesh’s independence, and then lost power in 1977 following a highly controversial period of emergency rule in 1975. Her party won the election of 1980 and she became Prime Minister for a fourth term. In June 1984, a violent clash with Sikhs at the Golden Temple caused increased anti-Gandhi feeling and in October 1984, two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in the grounds of her home.
In 2012 Somerville, the University of Oxford and the Government of India launched the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development. As part of that initiative, Somerville and the University of Oxford now offer a series of scholarships in Gandhi’s name for Indian students, supporting study in public policy and sustainable development, with a particular focus on India-related projects.
Did you know? In 1976, Somervillian Margaret Thatcher visited Indira Gandhi in Delhi: ‘I lunched with Indira Gandhi in her own modest home, where she insisted on seeing that her guests were all looked after and clearing away the plates while discussing matters of high politics.’
(1919-1999) – Philosopher and Booker Prize-winning writerLearn More
Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin and educated at progressive schools. She came up to Somerville in 1938 and began studying English, but soon changed to Literae Humaniores (Classics, including the study of ancient philosophy).
Murdoch took First-class honours, and ten days after she finished her final exams, she was conscripted as an assistant principal at the Treasury. She went on to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). After the War, she studied philosophy as a graduate student at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy until 1963.
Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1954. Her 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea won the Booker Prize. She continued to publish philosophical works alongside her fiction, including The Sovereignty of Good (1970), The Fire and The Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1976) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). In 1976 Murdoch was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1987 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE).
Did you know? A set of Murdoch’s novels was reissued in 2019 to mark her centenary. In a Guardian article reflecting on the work, writer Charlotte Mendelson said that Murdoch ‘understood our secret lives: falling in love with exactly the wrong person, maddened with inconvenient lust and sadness and fear. Her books are full of passion and disaster…’
(1899-1993) – Physiologist, Principal of Somerville 1945-67Learn More
Janet Vaughan grew up in Bristol and came to Somerville in 1919 to study Medicine, graduating with a First (despite having, as she said herself, nothing more than ‘a little ladylike botany’ when she arrived).
Vaughan went on to train as a doctor at University College Hospital. Her medical work in London’s slums gave her a lifelong commitment to socialism and also inspired her to take up work as a research pathologist looking at blood disorders. As part of the UK’s preparations for the Second World War, Vaughan began to develop a system for separating, storing and moving blood, creating Britain’s first national blood banks (the modified milk bottle used to store blood became known as a ‘Janet Vaughan’). At the end of the War, Vaughan was asked to go to Belsen at the head of a Medical Research Council Team to carry out research into how those suffering from starvation could best be treated (‘I am here,’ she wrote, ‘trying to do science in hell’).
The first scientist to be Principal of Somerville, Vaughan was also, for a time, the only scientist to be a head of house in Oxford. By the time Vaughan retired as Principal, 40% of the college’s students were scientists. Throughout her tenure, she continue to work in the lab and write academic papers. She also served on the Royal Commission for Equal Pay and as a founder Trustee of the Nuffield Foundation. When asked once in a radio interview how she managed to fit so much into her life, Vaughan said simply, ‘I never played bridge’.
You can read an article about Janet Vaughan’s work for the prisoners of Belsen, written to commemorate the 75thanniversary of the camp’s liberation, here.
Did you know? Janet Vaughan’s mother was a close friend of Virginia Woolf, and Woolf once described Janet Vaughan as ‘an attractive woman: competent, disinterested, taking blood tests all day to solve abstract problems’.
Born in London, Joyce Reynolds came to Somerville in 1937 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics). She took her Finals in 1941 and went on to work for the Board of Trade, where her study of the production and consumption of consumer goods later influenced her work on how the Roman world had run its own ‘civil service’. After the War, Reynolds won a research scholarship to the British School at Rome and her interest in the Roman inscriptions round at sites of excavation began to grow. She quickly became the leading expert on the inscriptions themselves as well on workshops that had produced them. Her most influential work has been on the inscriptions from the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey, which she has used to explore historical questions about Roman government and the relations between the imperial centre and the provinces.
Reynolds took up the role of Director of Studies in Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge and in 1957 she was appointed to a Lectureship in Classics at Cambridge University. In 1982 she was made a Fellow of the British Academy. She was Reader in the Epigraphy of the Roman World at Cambridge in 1983-4. Reynolds is a Gold Medallist of the Society of Antiquaries and Fellow of the British Academy, by whom she was awarded the Kenyon Medal for outstanding achievement in Classical Studies and Archaeology. She is now Reader Emerita at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Fellow of both Newnham and Somerville. One of her current projects is a brief account of texts on items of pottery for a multi-volume work on the House of the Menander at Pompeii.
Did you know? Joyce Reynolds taught a number of eminent classicists, including Mary Beard, who recalls the power of Reynolds’ teaching and the firmly sceptical approach it encouraged (‘Do you really know that, Miss Beard? Is that the only way you can interpret the evidence?’).
Julia Higgins grew up in London and came to Somerville in 1961 to study Physics, staying on to complete her doctorate. From 1976 she has been based at the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London where (since 2007) she has been Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Investigator. Higgins’ scientific work has concentrated on the investigation of polymers with neutron scattering, on which she has co-authored a monograph (Higgins & Benoit 1997).
From 1998 to 2003, Higgins was chair of the Athena Project, which aims for the advancement of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) in Higher Education. She is now the Patron of the Athena Swan Awards Scheme. Between 2003 and 2007, she was chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. She was president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers 2002-3, and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 2003-4. Higgins was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1995 and was its Foreign Secretary 2001-6.
Higgins chaired the the Royal Society’s State of the Nation Report Steering Group and (between 2008 and 2012) the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME). She currently Chairs the Royal Society project (funded by BIS) on increasing diversity in the scientific workforce. She is a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the City and Guilds of London Institute, of which she is also Vice-President. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1995, she was awarded a CBE in 1996 before being named a dame in the 2001 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. Higgins holds honorary degrees from a number of UK Universities and also from the University of Melbourne, Australia. In 1999, she was elected as Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She is a foreign member of the National Academy of Engineering of the United States. Higgins was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2001. She is a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and an Honorary Fellow of Somerville and of the Institute of Physics.
Did you know? As part of 2021’s Oxford International Women’s Festival, Julia Higgins gave the Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture, ‘Seeing is Believing’.
June Raine came to Somerville in 1971 to study Physiology. She then went on to do an MSc in pharmacology before taking her medical degree in 1978 and becoming a member of the Royal College of Physicians.
Raine’s interest in drug safety led to career in public health, and in 1985 she joined the Department of Health and Social Security in the Medicines Division, whose work moved to the newly formed MHRA in 2003. In 2006 she was appointed as the Director of Vigilance and Risk Management in the Medicines Division. In 2012 she was elected as the first chair of the European Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee and she is also co-Chair of the WHO’s Advisory Committee on Safety of Medicinal Products. She has particular interests in risk communication. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2009, and in 2019 she became Chief Executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), playing a crucial role in approving the vaccines against Covid-19. Recently Raine has been leading a programme of work on medicines for women’s health.
Did you know? In 2020 June Raine spoke on behalf of the MHRA when it gave emergency authorisation for use of the very first COVID-19 vaccine, developed by BioNTech/Pfizer.