History Remarkable Women

Philippa Fawcett (Remarkable Women #54)

Early life

Philippa Garrett Fawcett was born on 4 April 1868, to the suffragist Millicent Fawcett and Henry Fawcett MP, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and Postmaster General in Gladstone’s second government. Her maternal aunt was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first English female doctor. When Philippa‘s father died, she and her mother went to live with Millicent‘s sister Agnes Garrett, who had set up an interior design business on Gower Street, Bloomsbury.


Philippa was educated at Bedford College, London and Newnham College, Cambridge which had been co-founded by her mother.

In 1890, she became the first woman to obtain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams. The results were highly publicised, with the top scorers receiving great acclaim. Her score was 13% higher than the second highest, but she did not receive the title of Senior Wrangler (Geoffrey T. Bennett in 1890), as only men were then ranked and women were listed separately.

Women had been allowed to take the Tripos since 1880, after Charlotte Angas Scott was unofficially ranked as eighth wrangler. When the women’s list was announced, Philippa was described as “above the senior wrangler”. No woman was officially awarded the first position until Ruth Hendry in 1992.

An anonymous poem written in 1890 paying tribute to Philippa‘s great achievement climaxes with the following two stanzas, mentioning the other respected mathematicians Arthur Cayley and George Salmon:

Curve and angle let her con and
Parallelopipedon and
    Few can equal, none can beat her
    At eliminating theta
By the river Cam.

May she increase in knowledge daily
Till the great Professor Cayley
Owns himself surpassed
    Till the great Professor Salmon
    Votes his own achievements gammon
And admires aghast.

Coming amidst the women’s suffrage movement, Philippa‘s feat gathered worldwide media coverage, spurring much discussion about women’s capacities and rights. The lead story in the Telegraph the following day said:

Once again has woman demonstrated her superiority in the face of an incredulous and somewhat unsympathetic world… And now the last trench has been carried by Amazonian assault, and the whole citadel of learning lies open and defenceless before the victorious students of Newnham and Girton. There is no longer any field of learning in which the lady student does not excel.


Following Philippa‘s achievement in the Tripos, she won the Marion Kennedy scholarship at Cambridge through which she conducted research in fluid dynamics. Her published papers include “Note on the Motion of Solids in a Liquid”. Philippa was appointed a college lecturer in mathematics at Newnham College, a position she held for 10 years. In this capacity, her teaching abilities received considerable praise. One student wrote:

What I remember most vividly of Miss Fawcett’s coaching was her concentration, speed, and infectious delight in what she was teaching. She was ruthless towards mistakes and carelessness… My deepest debt to her is a sense of the unity of all truth, from the smallest detail to the highest that we know.

Philippa left Cambridge in 1902, when she was appointed as a lecturer to train mathematics teachers at the Normal School (teacher training college) in Johannesburg, then in Transvaal Colony, now part of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Philippa remained there, setting up schools throughout the country, until 1905, when she returned to Britain to take a position in the administration of education for London County Council. At the LCC, in her work developing secondary schools, Philippa attained a high rank. Denied a Cambridge degree by reason of her sex, she was one of the steamboat ladies who travelled to Ireland between 1904 and 1907 to receive an ad eundem University of Dublin degree at Trinity College.

Later life & death

Philippa maintained strong links with Newnham College throughout her life. The Fawcett building (1938) was named in recognition of her contribution to the college and that of her family.

She died in Hendon on 10 June 1948, two months after her 80th birthday and a month after the Grace that allowed women to be awarded the Cambridge BA degree received royal assent.

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