Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures

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Portrait of Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1889; (c) Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

During the 1890s Eleanor Sidgwick (always known as ‘Nora’ as by her friends) loved taking part in the regular Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society discussions. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend and fellow-member Louise Creighton recalled. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’ (Creighton, 97) It’s a delightful image that seems to contradict the serious face of the woman in James Jebusa Shannon’s portrait that hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge today. Sidgwick was the college’s first Vice-Principal and its second Principal from 1892. ‘We had immense respect for her,’ one student later recalled, ‘she was soft-voiced, slight in figure and generally pale in colouring, but in her grey eyes shone the light of the pure intellectual, quite unconscious of itself, but making one painfully aware of one’s own amateurish inferiority.’ (Phillips, 54)

Although she was known for her ‘fastidious austerity’ (Fowler, 7), Eleanor Sidgwick’s students knew that she could take a joke. One college production in 1895 featured a lively song with the lines: ”Mrs Sidgwick she up an’ sez ‘Look at the fax…the one thing we ax, is – do treat a girl as a rational creature.” (Fowler, 20) Her marriage to Newnham’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick in 1876 was from the outset an affectionate and rational (rather than romantic) partnership, based on working together to promote equal higher education opportunities for women. They did share a lifelong passion for psychical research, however, and probably met during a séance at her brother Arthur Balfour’s house. Both Sidgwicks were founder members of the Society for Psychical Research (est. 1882): see Jane Dismore’s excellent guest post here.

Growing up in the Balfours’ stately home in East Lothian, Eleanor Sidgwick had always been treated as a rational creature herself. She showed an early aptitude for mathematics, and her mother Lady Blanche insisted that she should be taught Euclid alongside her brothers Arthur, Gerald and Frank. While her brothers went off to study at Eton and Cambridge, Nora stayed at home to manage the three large family estates, which gave her a practical education in finance. This came in useful at Newnham, where she personally micro-managed the college accounts (‘chasing twopences’ as she called it) and she had the far-sighted strategy to ensure the future of its campus site by purchasing adjoining land and organizing a new road, Sidgwick Avenue, planted with plane trees that she paid for herself.

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Susannah Gibson’s The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019) reveals a less well known aspect of Eleanor Sidgwick’s work in Cambridge: as a physicist who contributed to Lord Rayleigh’s Nobel prize-winning discoveries. The subject of Gibson’s book is the Cambridge Philosophical Society, a scientific society for the University’s graduates founded 1819 that came to have worldwide influence. For well over a hundred years it did not accept women into the Society as members, because they were not permitted to hold Cambridge degrees. In my Times Literary Supplement review of Gibson’s book I wrote that my favourite chapter in the The Spirit of Inquiry is ‘A Workbench of One’s Own’ about the scientific work that Cambridge women carried on doing in segregated, poorly equipped laboratories when they were not permitted access to the University’s labs. But they also worked, often unacknowledged, alongside their male counterparts, for the sake of scientific discovery. 

In 1904 Lord Rayleigh became Cambridge University’s first Nobel Prize winner for his study of the density of gases and the discovery of Argon (see Katrina Dean’s blogpost here). In the 1870s and 1880s Rayleigh’s ‘closest collaborator’, according to Gibson, was his sister-in-law Eleanor Sidgwick, ‘a brilliant experimenter’, who co-published several papers with him and

‘worked painstakingly with Rayleigh and the others to set up the great spinning coils of wire, the scales and magnetometers, the Argand lamps, the looking glasses, and the telescopic eyepieces needed to record their measurements. The researchers often worked overnight, toiling away when the laboratory was silent and still, exhausting themselves in pursuit of the elusive numbers.’ (Gibson, 166)

This fascinating historical scientific work was highlighted in the ‘Discovery‘ exhibition at Cambridge University Library (see blog here) with photographs of Rayleigh’s hand-crafted bird whistles and other apparatus that he devised to detect ultrasonic waves, including a box full of bright green iridescent beetles and even a delicate blue butterfly wing used in his experiments on light waves. The exhibition featured Newton’s own annotated copy of the Principia, a letter that Darwin wrote from the Beagle and an early typescript of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (intriguingly with a different title). Also on display, for the first time ever, was the 1967 pulsar chart reading made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who as a PhD student rolled out her experimental charts on the long floor of the old Cavendish Laboratory. Seven years later it was her supervisor Anthony Hewish – not her – who was awarded the Nobel Prize, but despite this, Bell Burnell’s continuing work and influence have made her a role model for female scientists throughout the world. In 2018 she donated her $3 million Breakthrough Prize to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics.

It’s not hard to imagine Nora Sidgwick’s serious face lighting up at this news. How interested she would be to see, and hear about, the scientific discoveries that male and female Cambridge scientists have made – and continue to make – by working together. Women were doing important work even during a time when their contribution was not formally acknowledged by membership of prestigious scientific clubs and associations. Eleanor Sidgwick’s own ‘hidden figures’, like those of other women scientists, are part of that story.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019 (Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Eleanor Sidgwick’s hidden figures’: https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

Sources: Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); Katrina Dean, ‘Discovery: 200 Years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’ blog post at https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17330 (accessed 11.5.2019); Helen Fowler, ‘Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in Cambridge Women: Twelve portraits, eds. Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker (1996) & ‘Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936)’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: how one extraordinary society shaped modern science (OUP, 2019); Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Ladies Dining Society 1890–1914’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2016); Phillips, Ann (1979), ed., A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge: CUP); E. Sidgwick, Mrs Henry Sidgwick: a memoir by her niece (1938)

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