While the Dundee University archives hold records relating to a wide variety of individuals and institutions, preserving and sharing the history of the establishment and its predecessors is a core part of their work.
This history includes many remarkable events and achievements, but the story of women and the university is one that they are particularly proud of.
University College, Dundee (UCD) was officially founded in 1881 and opened for teaching two years later. From the very first day female students were admitted on the same terms as their male classmates.
While this would be unremarkable today, it was almost unheard of in the late Victorian era. This gender equality was entirely thanks to the college’s co-founder and main benefactress Miss Mary Ann Baxter.
She had made it a condition of her endowment of more than £130,000 (several million pounds in today’s money) which allowed the college to come into being. Her pioneering vision would have a profound legacy.
One of the original female students at UCD was Mary Lily Walker. A true polymath she would spend many years at the college studying a variety of subjects, excelling in all of them.
However it was for social reform that she would become best known, especially for her work with the Dundee Social Union. She also was a key figure in the founding of Dundee Women’s Hospital which opened in 1897.
In 1901 Miss Walker achieved another first when she and Agnes Husband (who had herself attended evening classes at UCD) were elected as the first female members of Dundee Parish Council, the body which administered poor relief. When she died in 1913 she was much mourned in Dundee.
Other female students made an international mark. Ruth Wilson (later Young), who studied science and medicine in Dundee 1902-1909, had a very distinguished career abroad.
She was appointed as Professor of Surgery at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi in 1916, before undertaking important health and welfare work in India and Ethiopia. She also served as Principal of Lady Hardinge Medical College between 1936 and 1940.
The year Ruth Wilson graduated saw the arrival of Doris Livingston Mackinnon, who came to UCD to assist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson in the Zoology Department. Mackinnon was a popular lecturer and a brilliant and much respected scientist. In 1919 she left Dundee to join the staff at King’s College, London, where she was made a professor in 1927.
However it is another female Professor who is arguably the most famous of Dundee’s early female academics – Margaret Fairlie.
Hailing from Balmirmer near Arbroath, Fairlie graduated from the medical school attached to UCD in 1915.
Most of her career was spent in the Dundee area, where she pioneered the use of radium to treat gynaecological diseases. In 1936 Dundee Royal Infirmary appointed her as the head of its obstetrics and gynaecology department and in 1940 she became professor of obstetrics and gynaecology.
She was the first female professor in Scotland and her appointment was controversial, with the Principal of St Andrews University, Sir James Irvine, initially opposing it when it was first proposed in 1936.
Her achievement can be seen as all the more remarkable given that she was still the only woman in Scotland to have achieved a professorship when she retired in 1956, by which time UCD had evolved into Queen’s College, Dundee.
Given this legacy it was entirely appropriate that when Queen’s College became Dundee University in 1967 that a woman, namely Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, became its first chancellor and its first honorary graduate.