Scottish Women in STEM

As we approach St. Andrew’s day, the patron saint of Scotland. We would like to share with you some of the work and achievements of the many influential Scottish women in STEM.


Victoria Alexandrina Drummond  (1894-1978)

victoria-alexaderPerthshire born victoria Drummond was the first female marine engineer in Britain and first female member of Institute of Marine Engineers. Victoria, goddaughter to Queen Victoria, turned from her aristocrat background to pursue a career in Marine engineering staring in world war I. After five voyages, Victoria Drummond left to study and attained a Second Engineer’s accreditation.

During World War II, she worked in the Merchant Navy as a second Engineer on the SS Bonita. When crossing the Atlantic, the Germans bombed their ship causing the engine room to become badly damaged. Victoria took charge of the situation keeping the ship’s engines running. This action saved the ship and she was awarded an MBE and a Lloyds’ war medal for bravery. The near sinking of the SS Bonita did not stop Victoria; she worked on several ships for the duration of the war crossing the Atlantic and on convoys to the Soviet Union – coming under fire on more than one occasion.

The sexist attitudes towards female engineers in this time worked against Victoria throughout her career. However this did not stop Victoria as she had thirty-seven attempts to gain accreditation to work as a Chief Engineer before succeeding.

Victoria can be credited for her determination and successes during career.

The Edinburgh Sevenedinburgh-7

Led by Sophia Jex-Blake ‘The Edinburgh Seven’ were the first women to matriculate at a British University and led the fight for women to qualify as doctors.

Sophia was granted permission to study at the University of Edinburgh however this was soon overturned as men and women had to be taught anatomy separately and a private class was too expensive to run. With supporters in the right place the Scotsman reported the story, more women applied to study medicine in response to an article.

In 1869 Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, and Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell and Sophia Jex-Blake matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. They were made to pay higher fees and had to arrange lectures themselves as the teaching system stated teachers were permitted but not required to teach women. The group faced a multitude of discrimination from other students; their lives were difficult and their ability to succeed was very much compromised. Even four years after their matriculation, the University rejected their access to wards and thus their ability to take exams and qualify. In 1876 medical examining bodies were given the right to admit women, the group could finally qualify and begin practicing as doctors.

Sophia Jex-Blake went on to set up the London School of Medicine for Women, many members of the group were also pivotal in establishing this facility.


Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan (1899 – 1985)


Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan, married name Fleming (born in Dunfriesshire) was the first female member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, successfully passing the institution’s admission examination in 1927.

Buchanan was born at Langholm, the youngest of five children born to Marion Vassie and the Reverend James Donaldson Buchanan. She was educated at Langholm Academy before earning a BS in civil engineering from Edinburgh University in 1922. At Edinburgh, she studied with Charles Glover Barkla, who had been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1917.

Her first job was with consulting engineering firm Dorman Long where she served as part of the design staff for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She later worked on the George V Bridge (now usually called the Tyne Bridge) in Newcastle and the Lambeth Bridge in London. She was also involved in the design of the Silent Valley Reservoir in Northern Ireland.

Upon marriage in 1930 to William H. Dalrymple Fleming, a civil engineer, she retired from engineering. As Dorothy Fleming, she pursued interests in rock climbing and painting. She died in 1985 in Somerset, at age 85.


Muriel Robertson (Glasgow 1883-1973)

muriel-robertson Muriel Robertson was a pioneering scientist who made ground-breaking discoveries of the life cycle of Trypanosomes, the parasites causing sleeping sickness or trypanosomiasis, infectious disease still largely spread in Africa.

Muriel was born in Glasgow in 1883 and after being home-educated she attended the University of Glasgow. Her courses where dominated by male colleagues refusing to be taught alongside women; however, the Professor of Zoology Graham Kerr insisted on teaching both sexes together and encouraged Muriel to go on with her studies.

Muriel was given a bench to research on protozoa and in 1923 she received her Doctorate of science from Glasgow after completing her thesis entitled “A study of the life histories of certain trypanosomes”. Her doctoral research, led Muriel to travel alone in Ceylon and Uganda, doing something extremely difficult and brave for a women of her period. Muriel continued her research in Cambridge and thereafter in the Lister Institute in London, where she lectured until the age of 80.

Her work about the life cycle of African trypanosomes in blood and its insect carrier, the tsetse flies, provided insights which founded the basis for the ongoing research on this devastating parasitic disease that are still a huge issue in many areas of Africa. Thanks to the breakthroughs she made in her field, Muriel was one of the first women (the 8th) to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 and the importance of her research is now widely recognised across the area of parasitology.


Elizabeth Blackwell (1707 – 1758)


Elizabeth Blackwell was an extraordinary scientist who merged the professions of botany, medicine and art into her published works ‘A curious herbal…’. She is mainly known as an illustrator, but her works have had profound impact on the scientific community.  Between 1737 and 1739, Elizabeth illustrated 500 plants and noted their medicinal properties, of which reputable physicians and apothecaries (medicinal dispensers) found incredibly informative and accurate. To this day, her drawings are still admired for their botanical accuracy and beauty.

Elizabeth was born in Aberdeen and moved with her husband to London, where he was unfortunately imprisoned as a debtor due to a failing printing business and lavish spending. During his imprisonment, Elizabeth visited the Chelsea Physic Garden and started her illustrations, in hope she could raise funds to free her husband and take care of her family. With the help of Isaac Rand (director of Chelsea Physic Garden) to complete the botanical information, her volumes sold for £5 each, which produced enough income to help her husband and family.

Elizabeth Blackwell now has a genus of plants named after her, the Blackwellia of the class Dodecandria Pentagynia


Marion Ross (1903-1994)


Dr Marion Amelia Spence Ross was born on 9th April 1903, in Edinburgh. She went to the Edinburgh Ladies College and afterwards in the University of Edinburgh. During her studies at the university she was awarded several prestigious bursaries in mathematics.

After graduating, she took teacher training courses at Cambridge and in 1928 became an Assistant Lecturer in the Physics Department at the University of Edinburgh, for about two years before persuading a PhD. Together with Dr Arnold Beevers, they found anomaly in the crystallography of beta alumina. The presence of the mobile sodium ions makes it a superconductor. These sites are named ‘Bevers-Ross’ and ‘anti-Beevers-Ross’ and they have important applications even today in the field of fast ion conductors.

Marion Ross pursued a carrier in x-ray physics and fluid flows and became the first Director of Edinburgh University’s Fluid Dynamics Unit. The University of Edinburgh awarded her a Readership Emeritus for her contribution to the university, including setting up the fluid dynamics unit within the Department of Physics which attracted a lot of students at that time. She was also part of the first female fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


 Dr. Marion Gray (1902 – 1979)


Born in Ayr, Marion Grey graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1922 with a 1st class degree in Mathematics. An award winning student, she traveled to Pennysylvania in 1924 to study and gain her PhD, again in Mathematics. After this, she returned and had research roles in both Edinburgh and London. In 1930 she returned to America and went to work as an assistant engineer in research at AT&T. During her time there she discovered the “Grey Graph”, a graph with 54 vertices and three edges exiting each vertex, as pictured below.


wwwThis graph was crutial in Network Theory, a study of Graphs mainly associated with Computer Science and Computer networking, but also has main other applications in disciplines such as biology, electrical engineering, and particle physics.

Gray went on to have a research career with Bell laboratories, and was quoted as being “one of their finest matematicians”.

After she retired, she moved back to Edinburgh, where she died at age 77.



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