Ida Freund

Ida Freund was the first woman to become a university chemistry lecturer in the UK and an active feminist and supporter of women's suffrage

Photograph of Ida Freund (c) Newnham College Cambridge Ida Freund ‘reigned supreme in the Chemistry Laboratory’ of Newnham College, providing inspiration to an incoming generation of women chemistry students. She was the first woman to become a university chemistry lecturer in the UK and described as ‘the presiding genius’. 

‘A person once encountered, always remembered’. 

An active feminist and supporter of women's suffrage, Ida played a leading role in the fight for women’s admission to the Chemical Society with Ida Smedley and Martha Whiteley. Sadly, Freund did not live to see the success: women were admitted to the Society in 1920, six years after her death.

The first female chemistry lecturer

Austrian born, Freund studied in Vienna before moving to England in 1881 where her uncle, violinist Ludwig Straus, enrolled her at the University of Cambridge. She attained First Class honours: a real achievement in a second language and given the difficulty women faced in getting advanced instruction in practical chemistry. 

After a one year lectureship at the Cambridge Training College, she became a demonstrator at Newnham College. In 1890 she was promoted to Lecturer in Chemistry, a position she held until 1913. 

Soon after, Freund was forced to leave Cambridge for London to have her leg amputated and care for her uncle, but returned to Cambridge in 1893 in a wheelchair. It did not affect her mobility at the university and she remained a fervent traveller, ‘wheelchairing her way across England, Scotland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy’.

A revolutionary teacher

Tough but beloved by her students; Freund was a revolutionary teacher. One student describes her as:

“A terror to first year students, with her sharp rebukes for thoughtless mistakes. One grew to love her as time went on…smiling, urging, scolding us along”. 

Another student talked of Miss Freund's ‘power of encouraging the timid, showing them what they could achieve.’

In 1907 the periodic table was the focus of the final exams and she called a study session, preparing a large periodic table with each element represented by a cupcake with its name and atomic number in icing. The RSC recently celebrated the launch of the Visual Elements Periodic Table in a very similar manner. 

Photograph of a periodic table of cupcakes (c) Royal Society of Chemistry

A lasting impact

Aside from her teaching, and despite the limited laboratory conditions and her physical handicap, Freund undertook research on the theory of solutions producing a substantial paper. M.M. Pattinson Muir, a chemistry historian, said her most renowned work, The Chemistry of Chemical Composition, ‘is to be classed among the really great works of chemical literature’. Freund also had a piece of laboratory apparatus, a variation on a gas measuring tube, named after her as her invention. 

Friends and former students set up the Ida Freund Memorial Fund ‘to raise the standards of women teachers of the physical sciences by giving them opportunities for further study’. Newnham College still regularly awards a prize in her name. 

Words by Holly Salisbury