Anne, a member of an organisation that educates and empowers women, has spent her career advocating for women in science.
Where Anne’s interest in chemistry came from she doesn’t know, but already at primary age it fascinated her. During World War II, she was taught general science by a botanist and the inaccessibility of the subject attracted her to it more.
“For me chemistry was all about colours, smells and bangs. A lad I met when evacuated to the country showed me how to produce an explosion with calcium carbide and water in a syrup tin. When I repeated the process in my garden, a neighbour came out and said, ‘Where did that one land? It must have been pretty near’.”
There were no science courses on offer in Anne’s sixth form. The school put pressure on her to take arts subjects and her father offered to pay for a secretarial course, but Anne was determined to be a scientist. She decided to get a job and study part-time. Her first job was at the Research Association of British Rubber Manufacturers which carried out work for the Ministry of Defence; her early duties in the laboratory included testing the tensile strength of condoms. She signed up for science classes in the evenings but had no foundation for subjects at this level and found it difficult to combine study with full-time work. The head of science at the college suggested she take a job as a lab assistant at an all-girls grammar school. Here, “the very nature of my work exposed me to well-taught science,” Anne explains, “and the Head and teachers encouraged me.” After six years of study she was offered a place at the University of Nottingham.
“Arriving at university was exhilarating. I was thrilled to be there and felt very lucky. I remained anxious in my first year. I was less well prepared than fellow students who had followed a regular A-level programme but I raced ahead in practical skills and was often given more advanced laboratory work by tutors.”
Supporting women in the workplace
Anne became the second female PhD student ever in inorganic chemistry at the university, and was the only woman in a group of 40.
“When I look back on my career, including my retirement, I can identify certain threads which run through it, sometimes predominant, sometimes hidden. Chemistry is the strongest, but it is interwoven with education, gender and health issues.”
At the end of her PhD interview the examiner offered her an assistantship at Aberdeen University. This gave her a wonderful start to her career, but with family problems in London, she left at the end of the year to join a new team at Westfield College. Although her professor there was keen on employing female academics, he still turned to his women colleagues to do tasks such as organise the Christmas party; “We declined!” Anne says. In addition to her research she took on the education role for the department, setting up the first field course for chemistry students. “Teaching firstly women only groups and then mixed groups developed my interest in issues around girls and science,” Anne explains.
When the college was amalgamated, Anne took voluntary redundancy to focus on her interest in gender equality. Almost at once, Anne was commissioned by WISE to produce a travelling exhibition, with an accompanying booklet, on women scientists. She was also employed by the Open University to teach courses on education and gender, and went on to join Girls and Science and Technology (GASAT), presenting papers at conferences in Australia, Israel, Canada, India and the USA.
“Training in the scientific method equips people with transferable skills so that they can end up in a job that has no apparent link with chemistry.”
By this time Anne had moved to Suffolk and registered with an initiative called ‘Women into Public Life’. Out of the blue she was invited to an interview with a senior civil servant and was offered the post of chair of the Suffolk Family Practitioner Committee (later Suffolk Family Health Authority). She found herself responsible for all primary health services in the county and was met with great suspicion. “This lady who knows nothing about medicine” was how one board member described her, but gradually she won their respect, working hard to introduce government requirements in a way that benefitted patients and professionals.
A ‘quiet’ retirement
After a period working as an Ofsted inspector, Anne retired only to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Two operations later, and after a successful recovery, she was inspired to volunteer at Ipswich Hospital. She became a member of the Cancer Services User Group that works closely with the hospital in a consultative and campaigning role. She sat on the hospital’s research committee, and when the hospital decided to seek Foundation status she was elected as a public governor.
Anne has also continued to support gender issues by becoming a member of the local Soroptimist club, a worldwide organisation seeking to raise the status of women and ensure they achieve their potential; this has included acting as co-leader on three writing workshops for female survivors of domestic violence. Anne has learnt much from these women and is moved by their trust. “Seeing them grow in confidence with a new sense of their own self-worth has been immensely rewarding.”
Words by Vicki Marshall and Anne Walton
Images courtesy of Anne Walton
Published July 2015