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Ida Smedley and the Lister Institute research group, 1933
Dr Ida Smedley

Ida Smedley was the first female member of the Chemical Society, and a vociferous campaigner for equality.

Ida was a remarkable woman and throughout her life successfully balanced ‘three threads evenly in her hands: research, social work and home-life’. Whilst fighting for women’s equality both at home and abroad, she was the first woman appointed as an assistant lecturer to the chemistry department of the University of Manchester, the only woman of 10 recipients of a Beit Research Fellowship, won an Ellen Richards Prize of the American Association of University Women and brought up two children.

Early life and career

Ida and her sister Constance were fortunate to have been born into an affluent middle class family, with parents who pressed upon them the importance of a good education. Clearly, this message was taken firmly on board, as the two emerged successful women: Constance Smedley became a revered author and playwright, and Ida a famous scientist.  

Ida was born on 14 June 1877, and alongside her sister attended the King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. Their firm friendship faded when Ida moved to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. Graduating from Newnham in 1899, Ida became a research student at the Central Technical College, London (later part of Imperial College). On completion of a DSc in 1903, awarded for her research on benzylaniline sulfonic acids, Ida returned to Newnham as a chemistry demonstrator. Shortly after, she resigned to take up a full time research position at the Davy-Faraday Laboratory of the Royal Institution, London.

In 1906, Ida was appointed as an assistant lecturer to the University of Manchester’s chemistry department, a first for Britain. There she continued with her organic chemistry research, becoming a self-confessed “night owl”, working long hours into the night.

Ida was the only woman to be awarded with a Beit Research Fellowship in 1910 – or as it was fittingly misquoted in the King Edward VI High School for Girls’ Old Edwardian newsletter, a ‘Best’ Research Fellowship.

She took up a position at the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine and was employed there for the rest of her career where she became an expert in the subject of fat metabolism and synthesis. Her isolation and detection of the three omega fatty acids arose from continuing “the classic work of G. O Burr and M. M. Burr” at the University of Berkeley, who had described stunted growth and dry scaly skin in young rats totally deprived of fat.

News of Ida’s success travelled as far afield as Australia, where she was featured in an article, alongside names such as Marie Curie and Marie Stopes. In 1913, for her outstanding contributions to scientific knowledge, she was awarded the Ellen Richards Prize of the American Association of University Women. Her high quality work continued; at the end of her career she had published 35 papers.

An advocate for women’s rights

In 1913, Ida married Hugh Maclean, and subsequently gave birth to two children: a son in 1914 and a daughter in 1917. Adding to her highly successful career, she became a hands-on mother, retained an active social life and found the time to advocate for women’s rights.

Mary Phillip, a school and university friend of Ida’s commented:

Her marriage was a very happy one, and she showed as much skill in running her home and bringing up her children as she had done in other departments of her life.”

She fought for women’s admittance to the Chemical Society and the Biochemical Society, petitioned the British Government for equality in welfare payments for women and men and held a leading role in forming the British Federation of University Women, where she served as President from 1929 to 1935. She was the first woman admitted to the Chemical Society and one of the first three women to join the Biochemical Society.

Ida passed away at the age of 67, but her pioneering work is still revered to this day.

Words by Emily James
Image © Wellcome Library, London
Published August 2013

Further information

“Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneering British Women Chemists, 1880-1949”, Marelene F. Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Imperial College Press 2008

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