Ida Freund


Ida Freund was the first woman to become a university chemistry lecturer in the UK, at a time when the subject was almost exclusively the domain of men.

Born in Austria, Ida was educated at the Vienna State Training College for Teachers, and in 1882, first came to Cambridge, studying natural sciences at Girton.

In 1887, she arrived at Newnham, first working as a demonstrator (junior teacher) in chemistry, and then being appointed to a full lectureship. Her imaginative teaching methods and her mixture of sternness and encouragement made her a formidable member of the Newnham staff. She had extremely high standards for her students, but was always able to keep an element of surprise within her teaching. As one student recalled, while revising for exams,

“we were requested to go and make a further study of the ‘Periodic Table of the Elements.’ We found a very large board with the Table set out. The divisions across and down were made with Edinburgh Rock, numbers were made of chocolate, and the elements were iced cakes each showing its name and atomic weight in icing. The nonvalent atoms were round, univalent had a protruding corner, bivalent two, trivalent triangular and so on. We divided it up between us!”

Perhaps inspired by her early education, Ida Freund’s scholarly interest was in pedagogy, rather than pure chemical research. She worked to improve science teaching at University, argued against the introduction of ‘domestic science’, i.e. cookery, in girls’ schools, and published two valuable chemistry textbooks. When her former students  became school science teachers and complained of the limited resources available to them, she ran her own teachers’ professional development summer schools.

Her personal life was equally distinctive. She was an active feminist and suffragist, campaigning for the admission of women to learned societies such as the Chemical Society. A disability meant that she frequently used a wheelchair for mobility: she continued her hobby of cycling across Europe nonetheless, with an adapted tricycle powered by her arms.

Ida Freund died in 1914, and is remembered today with chemistry prizes at both Newnham and Girton.