Dr Alice Prochaska, Principal, has been awarded the Herbert Salter History Prize for her paper Reflections on the History and Identity of the Former Women’s Colleges.

Dr Prochaska delivered the paper at Trinity College, Oxford on 15 November 2014 as part of the History of Oxford Colleges Conference.

The paper looks at the evolution of Oxford’s women’s Colleges. It explores the social and cultural context that surrounded their founding principles, then moves on to consider the significance of their strong academic record, before finally looking at their place within the modern university, especially in light of the admission of male students to all the women’s Colleges. The full text can be accessed on the Somerville website.

Dr Prochaska (1965, History) is an archivist and historian by background. She served as administrator and deputy to the Director of the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research (1984-92), as Director of Special Collections at the British Library (1992-2001), and as University Librarian at Yale University (2001-2010). In 2010 she took up the position of Principal, Somerville College.

“I was delighted to have the opportunity to explore the history and identity of these wonderful Colleges, which have played such an important part in Oxford and, I believe, in national life. To be awarded a prize for my efforts is icing on the cake,” she said.

In the course of paper, Dr Prochaska looked briefly at the remarkable life of Mary Somerville. An excerpt of this section of the paper appears below.

Mary Somerville…was a renowned writer of important translations and books about science, an honorary member of the Royal Society (which of course at that date did not admit women to the fellowship), a distinguished mathematician and astronomer in her own right, who had had to beg and borrow her education from her brother’s tutor and then from her own experimentations and voracious reading…

Mary Somerville was celebrated by the great scientists of her day, admired by Charles Darwin, and invited by John Stuart Mill to be the leading signatory of his parliamentary petition for votes for women, presented in 1868. She was also unimpeachably respectable and accomplished in the way of upper-middle-class ladies: a wife and mother, a good artist and a good pianist; a role model in fact, for the women of the college that was named after her…

The historian Richard Holmes has published a review of Mary Somerville’s work in Nature, where he extols her ground-breaking role as the first writer on science to provide a systematic set of explanations, and the most influential person in coining the term “scientist”. Apart from a couple of short biographies and this recent article, however, her fame did not survive her own long life by many years. The great Mary Somerville, whose name meant so much to the founders of the college, is now an obscure and unknown presence in a couple of portraits in the college: and I make it my mission in welcoming our first-year undergraduates, to tell them just a bit about their presiding genius, a woman who did in fact change the way people see the world.

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