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Celebrating St Andrews' First Women in STEM

A deep dive into the inspirational women who paved the way for generations of women in STEM.


In 1862, a young Elizabeth Garrett arrived in St Andrews, determined, against all odds, to secure her medical degree from the University. Though prevented from completing her degree, Garrett made history by being the first woman to matriculate at the University of St Andrews. Relentless in her ambition, Garrett finally earned her medical licence in 1865, becoming the first Englishwoman to qualify as a surgeon in Britain. But the world was still Garrett’s to conquer as she became the first female dean of a British medical school and, upon retirement, the first female mayor in Britain. She is among the dozens of revolutionary, female alumni of this University, whose achievements in STEM are still celebrated 150 years later.



Whenever the topic of ABH is brought up, many of us imagine a sprawling building tucked away in North Haugh. But the hall itself is a tribute to Agnes Forbs Blackadder, the University of St Andrews’ first female graduate in 1895. Graduating ahead of her cohort, Blackadder went on to earn her Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow in 1898 and became a Doctor of Medicine in 1901. Her role as a radiographer in the Scottish Women’s Hospital during World War One is a testament to her legacy as a doctor, researcher, and pioneering medical author. After studying how music could benefit patients in hospitals, she wrote Music, Health, and Character in 1923, which led to the founding of the Council for Music in Hospitals.


The stories of the Campbell sisters are further proof of the rich history of female STEM students that this University offers. The eldest sister, Mary Campbell Smith, graduated in 1899 with honours in mental philosophy and physics. She later served in the Army during World War One as quartermaster of the Dundee Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital. Two more Campbell sisters, Lizzie Renwick Campbell and Adeline Herbert Campbell, made remarkable achievements in the medical field working in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps Hospital in France.


Looking to her elder sisters for inspiration, the youngest sister, Isabel Macnaughton Campbell, graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1926 from the University of St Andrews and became one of the first women to receive a Commonwealth Fellowship award, giving her a scholarship to study at Cornell University. She returned to teach at St Andrews, where the legacy of her sister’s success remained woven into St Andrews' culture and history.


Alice Marion Umpherston made history by being appointed the first female lecturer in 1896. She taught physiology modules for female students at St Andrews as well as teaching medicine and leading missions in India. This inspired chemist Ettie Stewart Steele to gain her MA from St Andrews in 1912 and eventually become the first female chemistry candidate to submit her thesis for a PhD at St Andrews. Her research was later adopted and completed by St Andrews’ renowned chemist and Vice-Chancellor, Sir James Irvine. Steele’s legacy is enshrined at the University, with a reading room in the Purdie Building named after her.


The stories of these women are an inspiration to all of us who study here. Their fight for equality in the workplace, laboratory, and lecture halls is evidence of their passion for STEM and academic opportunities. The University’s academic culture and legacy would not be as powerful as they are today without the work of these women.


Image from the University of St Andrews

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