First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Credit: Kenneth Halley

Celebrating our university’s female alumni

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Kenneth Halley

Binnur Cavuslu

On International Women’s day this year, Binnur Cavuslu explores a few of the most notable alumna to come out of Glasgow University

Nearly 60 percent of University of Glasgow students today are female, an astounding number since it was only in 1892 that women were granted entry as students to the University. While the accession of women into higher education was a slow process, the University of Glasgow has seen considerable progress in women’s rights since that initial step in 1892. In celebration of International Women’s Day, we want to look at some of the University’s notable female alumni and celebrate their achievements in Scotland and beyond.

Dr Marion Gilchrist – Scotland’s First Female Medical Doctor
When the first four female students graduated from the University in 1894, Dr Marion Gilchrist was among them, also leaving her mark as the first woman to obtain a medical degree in Scotland. Born in the village of Bothwell in 1864, Dr Bothwell earned a degree of LLA (Lady Literature in Arts) at Queen Margaret College in 1890 and was among the first students to enter the QMC medical school which was established in the same year. The QMC merged with the University of Glasgow two years later and after another two years, Gilchrist was one of two women to graduate from the school. Gilchrist was actively engaged at the University, having served as the Vice-President of the QMC Students’ Union and participated in the Literary and Debating Society, as well as being a member of Glasgow and West of Scotland Association for Women’s Suffrage during her studies.

Upon graduation she worked as a general practitioner and later set up her own practice in the West End. Specialising in eye diseases, she served as an Assistant Surgeon for Eye Diseases at the Glasgow Victoria Infirmary for several years, later becoming the first chairwoman of the Glasgow branch of the British Medical Association. She worked in her practice until her death in 1952.

Apart from the accolades in her field, Dr Marion Gilchrist was a key figure in the Scottish Suffragette movement, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union and Women’s Freedom League in 1907. Following her death, the University also began awarding the Marion Gilchrist Prize to the most accomplished female graduate of Medicine. Dr Marion Gilchrist is also the namesake of the University’s Gilchrist Postgraduate Club.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Astrophysicist short of a Nobel Prize
Born in Belfast in 1943, Burnell began reading books on astronomy at an early age, spurred by her father’s job as an architect at an observatory. Standing up for girls’ role in science, Burnell protested being sent to “domestic” science classes in grade school while the boys in her class took science classes. Consequently, the girls were allowed into the science class with Burnell excelling in her class.

She went on to complete a Bachelor of Science in what was then Natural Philosophy, now Physics, at the University of Glasgow in 1965. Only four years later she obtained her PhD from the University of Cambridge, where Antony Hewish served as her thesis supervisor. It was here that she managed a radio telescope to study the stars and where she discovered pulsars; neutron stars that leave behind beams of electromagnetic radiation in 1967 with her supervisor. The paper was published under both of their names and three others, however Burnell wasn’t credited when the discovery was awarded with the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974.

Having held research positions in different universities across England, the astrophysicist has made countless contributions to astronomy and was chosen as the first fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. She now teaches Astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

Nicola Sturgeon – First Minister of Scotland
This list wouldn’t be complete without her. Born in 1970 in the town of Irvine, Sturgeon entered politics at the age of sixteen when she joined the Scottish National Party in 1986. She attributes the inspiration for this interest to the rising levels of unemployment under Thatcher’s government, beginning to advocate for Scottish Independence early on.

Sturgeon studied Law at the University of Glasgow, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) in 1992 and a Diploma in Legal Practice the next year. As a student Sturgeon was active in the GU Scottish Nationalist Association and the Students’ Representatives Council.

Having worked as a solicitor in Glasgow, she stood as the youngest Scottish parliamentary candidate at the British general election in 1992. When the Scottish parliament and government was established in 1999, she won a seat as an MSP for Glasgow, later acting as a Deputy Leader of the SNP and Deputy First Minister under Alex Salmond. The Scottish National Party saw great electoral victories under their leadership, winning a majority of the seats at the 2011 general elections, among them many constituencies in Glasgow that had long been the stronghold of the Labour Party. As a Secretary for Health and Wellbeing she facilitated the reversing of A&E closures and the termination of charges for prescribed medicine. Following her position as Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, she assumed the roles of First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP in 2014, the first woman to take on both roles.

Emeli Sandé – Once a medical student at the University
Unbeknown to most, acclaimed singer and songwriter Emeli Sandé has gained a degree in neuroscience from the University of Glasgow. Born in 1987 in Sunderland, Sandé was raised in Aberdeenshire and discovered her passion for music at a young age. Having written her first song at the age of seven, she performed gospel at the MTV studios in London at the age of 15 and rejected an offer that she received from a record company soon afterwards to instead go to university.

She began studying medicine at the University of Glasgow in 2006, but decided to leave after obtaining a degree in neuroscience in 2009 to focus on her music career. Sandé rose to fame after releasing a single with the rapper Chipmunk the same year of her graduation, having written songs for other singers in the past. In 2012, her album “Our Version of Events” became the best-selling albums in the UK and performing in both the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the London Olympics.

Her 2012 Critic’s Choice Award at the Brit Awards was followed by three more: Best British Female Solo Artist and British Album of the Year in 2013 and Best British Female Solo Artist in 2017 after the release of her second studio album. Sandé’s contributions to music were honoured through an honorary degree as a Doctor of the University (DUniv) by the University of Glasgow in 2013 and through her appointment as a Member of the Order of the British Empire last year.

The female graduates of Glasgow University are as multi-faceted as can be. Be it medicine, law, physics or the arts, they are achieving great successes far and wide. From Dr Marion Gilchrist to Emeli Sandé, each one deserves to be celebrated as the strive for equal rights and recognition continues.


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