In this address made during the annual Leaver’s Dinner on June 21st 2019, Brigitte Stenhouse (2012, Maths) recalls her time at the College and how the end of her student days was far from the end of her Somervillian ones.

When I first came up to Somerville in 2012, I had only a few vague ideas of what my life over the next four years was going to be.

Having waved my friends off one by one, I avidly watched their freshers week shenanigans via my Facebook newsfeed, contemplating what this next chapter would bring. Older friends and teachers had of course passed on advice, with one teacher sagely telling me that the people you meet in freshers week are the people you spend the rest of your degree trying to avoid – which, in a valiant attempt to make friends, I promptly told the first people I met at Somervill!

Fortunately – as one of them pointed out in third year when we shared a flat in the Dorothy Hodgkin Quadrangle, and again this New Year’s Eve at her house party in London where we rang in 2019 with our fellow Somervillians – I was terrible at avoiding them. To this day, we remain good friends.

Michaelmas term soon passed in a blur of problem sheets, dinners in hall, early morning walks to the boathouse (as for some reason I never managed to get myself a bike), and sunny afternoons wishing I was on the quad. Every day was a choice between the thousands of things on offer, and nowadays I can’t quite recall how we managed to pack so much into 8 weeks. Time passed faster and faster, carried along by impromptu renditions of Cecilia, until suddenly it was the end of my third year and I needed to pick a topic for my final year dissertation on the history of maths.

I knew I wanted to write about the work of a woman, but to be honest I wasn’t really fussed which one. A chance encounter with Anne Manuel in the library over a display in the John Stuart Mill room led me to Mary Somerville. A few weeks later after devouring both her biography and her autobiography, I knew Somerville was the woman for me (and in fact, I am even now studying for a PhD at the Open University which focuses on her mathematical works).

Brigitte in College with the bust of Mary Somerville, who is now the topic of her PhD

Her love of nature, science, and mathematics oozed from every page. Moreover, her determination and tenacity were empowering. Somerville lived and worked in a time when it was widely accepted that higher education was actively harmful to the health (and even the fertility) of women. In her memoir, Somerville wrote ‘I was reserved and unexpansive, in consequence of the silence I was obliged to observe on the subjects which interested me’, and ‘I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low’ [1]. And yet, she managed to become one of the most well-known mathematicians and natural philosophers of nineteenth century Europe, honoured with a bust in the Royal Society, and nowadays of course you can find her face on the Royal Bank of Scotland £10 note.

Not content with her own success, Somerville wrote in the dedication of her second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, that through her work she hoped ‘to make the laws by which the material world is governed more familiar to [her] countrywomen’ [2]. Her memoir is nothing less than a call to arms, exhorting society to value the intellectual contributions of women, and encouraging women to pursue their passion, whatever it may be.

She gave permission for her signature to be used on a petition to the University of London to grant diplomas to young women intended for governesses (which unfortunately failed), and on her death in 1872 left her private mathematical library to Girton College in Cambridge, then one of only three higher education colleges open to women in the UK. What then, would Somerville have felt, when seven years later an Oxford college was founded to include the excluded, both on grounds of religion and gender, and which chose her for its name sake?

Certainly over the following 140 years, this community centred around Somerville college, its students, fellows, and staff, has followed her lead; in their pursuit of knowledge, their generosity, humility, and determination. For example, from 1907 onwards, Principal Emily Penrose adamantly made sure that all students satisfied the residence and examination requirements for a degree, so that in 1920 when Oxford finally granted degrees to women, over 300 Somervillians, more than any other women’s college in Oxford, were able to, and did, retrospectively claim their degree. [3]

In the true spirit of ‘once a Somervillian, always a Somervillian’, in 1910, the council of the college received a letter from alumni suggesting that it was about time Somerville had a room large enough for the entire college to share meals together. Furthermore, they suggested that the necessary funds could be raised by the Somerville community itself if everyone banded together; and so it was that the new Maitland building, in which we now sit, was entirely financed by donations and the purchases of debentures by alumni and friends of the college. [4]

A hundred years later, I watched a different generation of Somervillians, who were attending their 50th reunion in college, demonstrate that same care over current students today. In a Q&A session with then Principal Alice Prochaska, Senior Tutor Steve Raynor, and Director of Development Sara Kalim, these alumni demanded to know how both the academic needs, but moreover the mental health needs of current students were being looked after. That they cared so deeply and so passionately about students who they would probably never meet was incredible.

I graduated from Somerville, like so many others, with no firm plan of what I wanted to do with my life. I spent an absolutely amazing year in the College’s Development Office with the Alumni Relations team. Their commitment to making Somerville the best it can be, supporting alumni in any way they can by connecting them with old friends or potential collaborators, or raising money for projects like The Terrace (which opened in my 2nd year), new student rooms, or that oh-so-valuable second toilet in the Library, definitely follows on from a long tradition of Somervillians looking out for each other and their community.

From meeting so many alumni that year, and since leaving – although I never make it more than a few months before I return to my spot on the library steps – I can honestly say that Somerville continues to help me figure out what I want to do my with life and make it happen, whatever that may be. With College events and reunions in London, Oxford and around the world, there are so many opportunities to visit unique places with old friends, hear about new books or ventures by Somervillians, or the current research happening at college.

There is also the online mentoring platform Aluminate, where you can find Somervillians who live in the new cities to which you will move, who work in the sector you want to break into, or perhaps one day younger students and alumni you can mentor in turn.

And all the while, the College continues to grow, with new buildings, new students, and new projects. All this comes under the fantastic leadership of our Principal, Jan Royall, who fills me with the utmost confidence that Somerville, and Somervillians, will continue to thrive.

So: congratulations to all those who have finished; best of luck to all those whose exams continue into ninth week or fourth year; and here’s to Somerville College!


[1] The Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville, Mary Somerville, 1874. Pages 42 and 60. Read online here.

[2] On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, Mary Somerville, 1834, London. Dedication. Read online here.

[3] Somerville for Women: An Oxford College 1879-1993, Pauline Adams, 1996, OUP. Page 152.

[4] Adams, 1996. Page 84.

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