Kings College London

King's in the Gatsby era: science, women and war

Doris Mackinnon 1943 first female Chair at King's (of Zoology)Doris Mackinnon, Chair of Zoology from 1927, with King's students in 1943 (King's College London Archives)

Curiosity was the theme of Alumni Weekend: three days of exciting and stimulating events dedicated exclusively to our alumni, held in early June 2014. The Gatsby Ball – a night of twenties-inspired glamour, jazz and cocktails – has inspired our curiosity about what King’s would have been like nearly one hundred years ago.

The 1920s were a time of turbulent social change and also King’s centenary decade, so people were more than usually curious about the College’s future. Would it move to new premises in Bloomsbury, into the shadow of the British Library? Would it raise enough funds to maintain its top standards? Would educating men and women side by side at the College cause the science departments to collapse?

Equal rights

These questions and more were complicated by radical new ideas taking root in wider society. In 1928, women were given the same voting rights as men. American John Logie Baird gave the first public demonstration of the television in this decade, but for the time being, people still had to find alternative forms of amusement.

Public lectures at King’s often attracted crowds, and, in 1921, Albert Einstein was greeted by a packed auditorium. It was during this period that the theories of general relativity and quantum physics were first circulated in the scientific community, and our accepted concepts of time and space were fundamentally challenged.

Many of the attendees were women, of course. The absence of male students during wartime had allowed more women than ever to enter the main College, although the Ladies’ Department in Kensington Square had held lectures for women since 1878 (later renamed ‘Women’s Department of King’s College’). Many women had flocked to take advantage of new educational opportunities during the war, but they wouldn’t adjust as easily to the idea of surrendering their new freedoms now that the fighting was (temporarily) over.

In fact, women were so curious that the College was over-capacity. To ease this problem, the Principal permitted lectures to be held in his living quarters, which at the time were on campus, and temporary classrooms were erected on the College roof.

The overcrowding was such that it apparently led to friction between male and female students – particularly in the cramped science and medical laboratories where demand was extremely high. According to one source, the men complained that the women sought equal rights, and yet hypocritically expected preferential treatment based on their gender.

Student bodies

Luckily, before tensions could boil over, the College’s decision to stay put in its Strand premises meant that long-overdue projects could forge ahead. In 1927, additional space was excavated for the Department of Physics by transporting all of the contents of the George III Museum to the Science Museum in South Kensington.

Although the overcrowding was far from ideal, professors still maintained high educational standards by using their most engaging teaching methods.

At the same time as the faculty was upholding its world-renowned reputation, certain students were known for being quite formidable. The Chair of Zoology, Professor Julian Huxley (later Sir) admitted that he found the prospect of delivering elementary lectures in zoology to the pre-medical King’s students daunting because of their reputation for unruliness. His fears were, however, unfounded, and his students listened with attentive curiosity.

Despite enjoying the post, in 1927, Sir Julian left after only two years because he was curious about working with H.G. Wells on his encyclopaedic work on biology, The Science of Life.

Moving forwards

Following Sir Julian’s departure, in an historic first, Professor Doris Mackinnon became the first female Chair at King’s after eight years filling second place. She held the Chair until 1949.

Also in 1927, King’s welcomed alumna and writer Ms Evelyn Underhill (History and Botany) as the first woman to the Fellowship of the College – though the Dean apparently made her uncomfortable by mentioning in his speech that she enjoyed talking to cats.

This was an especially exciting time at the College – due in large part to its own curious spirit. By the end of the 1920s, female students shared classrooms with male peers, time had been discovered to be relative to speed and the College was was celebrating its centenary year (with reenacment of the famous duel). As 1929 drew to close, King’s was readying itself for another spectacular hundred years.

1929 Centenary Duel Re-enactment of the Wellington-Winchilsea duel at King's College Centenary pageant, 1929 (King's College London Archives)

 Article posted: July, 2014




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