Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Eleanor Sidgwick and her Doctorates

Some time ago I reviewed a book called The Articulate Dead by Michael E Tymn. He had referred to Eleanor Sidgwick, a significant early figure in the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), as “Dr Sidgwick”, and I wrote that she did not have a doctorate and was always referred to as “Mrs Sidgwick”. More recently I reviewed a DVD, This Life, Next Life: Evidence for the Afterlife, by Keith Parsons, who also referred to “Dr Sidgwick”. I wondered if Keith had picked up the reference from The Articulate Dead.

Shortly afterwards I had an email from Michael Tymn saying that he had read somewhere that Eleanor Sidgwick had a doctorate, possibly an honorary one, but that would still count. He had been in touch with Keith Parsons, who said that he too had come across this information somewhere, though not in The Articulate Dead (Keith later remembered that it was in an online piece – by Mike Tymn). I was left with the question of whether Eleanor Sidgwick had achieved a doctorate, if so where from, and whether it was legitimate to refer to her as “Dr Sidgwick”, a title which she seems never to have used herself.

While she did not possess an earned doctorate, she was awarded several honorary ones later in her career, not primarily for her psychical or mathematical research but rather for her administration and efforts in promoting women’s education. The basic information is contained in the book written after her death, which occurred on 10 February 1936, Mrs. Henry Sidgwick: a Memoir by her niece Ethel Sidgwick (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1938, pp. 165-6):

“Mrs. Sidgwick's services to Universities and to education generally, were recognised by four Honorary Degrees: the first being offered by the "Victoria" University, uniting Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Birmingham was the second, St. Andrews the third. Her fourth degree, late but not least valued, was conferred by Edinburgh.”

Helen Fowler’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography refers to the honorary degrees in similar terms and is presumably drawn from the Memoir. They do not specify whether the degrees were doctorates, but it was a reasonable assumption that they were. To find out more about what kinds of degrees she was awarded, and when, I contacted all four institutions mentioned, plus Newnham College, Cambridge, with which she had had a long relationship.

Ann Thomson, archivist at Newnham, replied that the college records showed that Eleanor Sidgwick received the four honorary degrees for her services to education, and added that she had never seen Eleanor referred to as Dr Sidgwick, which would more likely have been used in connection with her husband Dr (later Professor) Henry Sidgwick. She added that in 1921 women were granted the 'title of degree' but it was not until 1948 that they were granted full membership of Cambridge University. She told me that there is no mention in the Newnham records of Eleanor Sidgwick ever taking a doctorate in her own right.

I did a search of the 'Times' online archive and indeed found that only Henry was ever referred to as ‘Dr’, never Eleanor. So what exactly were these degrees which were awarded to Mrs Sidgwick? The four institutions replied, some with more detail than others, but all supplied the basic information. To take the awards in chronological order:

The Victoria University

The Victoria University was a federal institution established in 1880, incorporating what eventually became the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Jenny Wallwork at Manchester told me that their records showed that the Victoria University awarded Mrs Henry Sidgwick the honorary degree of Litt.D. in 1899. Ms Wallwork kindly checked the online records of the ‘Manchester Guardian’ newspaper, and said that the decision was approved by the University Court at a meeting on Thursday 22nd June, 1899. The degree ceremony was fully reported in the newspaper issue dated July 3, 1899. The full citation read out at the ceremony was included, and it stated that the degree was awarded to recognise "the varied accomplishments and the self-sacrificing devotion of the successful administrator".


Philippa Bassett confirmed that the University of Birmingham awarded Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick an honorary LLD in 1909. According to the minutes of University Council, a Special Degree Congregation was planned to follow the royal opening of the University’s Edgbaston buildings in July 1909, and the relevant minute book contains a printed list of persons whom the Senate wished to invite to accept the Honorary Degree of LLD: “The matter has been carefully discussed in the several Faculties, as well as at meetings of the Principals’ and Deans’ Committee and each outside name is recommended by the Faculty which contains experts in the specific subject.” Eleanor Sidgwick is listed as Mrs Sidgwick and is described as Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. The reason for the award is not given in the Council’s minutes, and Ms Bassett concludes that the minutes of these various bodies might throw light on a more specific reason for Eleanor Sidgwick’s selection, but she did not have the resources to undertake a search of them.

It is worth adding that the Principal of the University of Birmingham from 1900 to 1919 was Sir Oliver Lodge (knighted in 1902). Lodge was a colleague of Mrs Sidgwick’s in the SPR, and it is likely that that he exercised some influence in the award of the honorary doctorate.

St Andrews

St Andrews dealt with my enquiry as a Freedom of Information request. June Weir wrote that

“ELEANOR MILDRED SIDGWICK received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LLD) in person at a ceremony in St Andrews as part of the Quincentenary celebrations of the University on Thursday 14 September 1911 at 1030 am. She was one of two women so honoured, amongst 86 recipients of the LLD on that occasion, the other being Louisa Innes Lumsden. Both women were pioneers in the field of the education of women. There does not seem to have been a normal laureation address, since there were so many graduates at the ceremony. Rather, a souvenir handbook was published in 1912 which contains a potted biography of the honorary graduates. Mrs Sidgwick is described as follows:

“‘74 Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, sister of the Right Honourable A.J. Balfour and widow of Professor Henry Sidgwick, Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892-1910. Mrs Sidgwick has been closely connected with the progress of secondary Education in many ways. Most notable perhaps is her work for Newnham College for women, which owes an untold amount to her extraordinarily calm clear good sense and judgment, her great administrative ability, her generous outlook and living sympathy. For 35 years she has been, and still is, Treasurer to the College, and has had the finance practically in her hands, and it is impossible to overpraise the wise, sound, far-seeing policy, pursued by her throughout with marked success. In 1892 she became Principal, an office which she has only recently resigned, and she is now President of the Newnham Council. She was a most useful and active member of the Royal Commission on Education, the first Royal Commission on which women were appointed to sit, and has been on many Educational bodies since. Mrs Sidgwick has taken an active part in the work of the Psychical Society [i.e. the Society for Psychical Research] from its commencement and has made valuable contributions to its proceedings.’

“Her name was suggested to the University Senatus by the Honorary Degrees committee but there does not seem to be a record of who might have nominated her.”


The final honorary doctorate awarded to Mrs Sidgwick was also that of LLD, significantly for her academic work as much as for her contributions to sound administration. Arnott Wilson supplied the text of a letter written by Mrs Sidgwick, as well as the relevant part of the encomium read at the ceremony.

The letter from Mrs Sidgwick, dated from Fisher's Hill, 25 March 1923, states: "I am in receipt of your letter enclosing the offer of the Senatus Academicus of the University of Edinburgh to confer on me the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. I cannot refuse so great an honour and am much gratified that the University should consider me worthy of it. My only hesitation about replying at once has been due to the fact that at my age [she was 78] one cannot rely on the health and strength necessary for long journeys and fatiguing ceremonials some months ahead, so that element of uncertainty must accompany my acceptance".

It appears that she did manage to attend the graduation ceremony which was held on the morning of 12th July 1923, when the degree was conferred. In presenting the thirteen candidates for the honorary LLD degrees (which included Winston Churchill), the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor James Mackintosh, stated: "Women figure so prominently in our Ordinary list of graduands that it would almost seem invidious if they were not represented in the Honorary list as well. Fortunately, Mrs Sidgwick has seen her way to accept our invitation, and it would be hard to find a lady better entitled to University honour or more deserving of the gratitude of her sex. During her long connection with Newnham College as Principal and Bursar, she proved herself a sane and judicious leader in the movement for the Higher Education of Women. She has contributed materially to the progress of Electrical Science by the part she took in investigating the absolute values of the fundamental electrical units. In the more occult region of psychical research, she has pursued her inquiries in the same strictly scientific spirit, not without a certain measure of philosophic doubt. It adds to the warmth of our welcome that Mrs Sidgwick is a member of the brilliant family which has given us our revered Chancellor."

The “revered Chancellor” of the University was Mrs Sidgwick’s brother, Arthur Balfour, who had been appointed in 1891 and was created The Earl of Balfour in 1922.

One further source of information is Burke’s Peerage. The 96th edition of 1938, p.207, in the section devoted to the Balfour family, refers to Mrs Sidgwick as in possession of the four doctorates, which it then lists, along with the relevant institution. It does not say that these are honorary doctorates, the implication being that Burke’s is above such mundane distinctions, and one might (at a stretch) assume that Mrs Sidgwick had achieved them in a non-honorary way. The wording was essentially unchanged in the 107th edition of 2003, and it is conceivable that this has been a source of confusion.

So Eleanor Sidgwick was awarded four honorary doctorates, her tally being one Litt.D and three LLDs, but the question still remains whether this would entitle her to use the title. Who better to ask than the University of Cambridge, and I received a reply from Tim Milner, who is the University’s Ceremonial Officer. He said that there were no hard and fast rules. Within the University, a person with an Honorary Cambridge Doctorate, but not a substantive one (i.e. one for which a thesis has been submitted), might be addressed as Dr in formal and social correspondence. However, in the outside world it would be up to the recipient: “Some clearly like the style Dr, others do not. Some people think it should be used socially and formally, and others not”, he concluded. Wikipedia also distinguishes honorary from substantive degrees and says that although honorary ones are not generally considered to be of the same standing as the substantive ones, in principle the honorary ones "may be considered to have technically the same standing, and to grant the same privileges and style of address as their substantive counterparts, except where explicitly stated to the contrary".

With no fixed rules and fluid conventions regarding honorary doctorates, I have to say that Tymn and Parsons were not incorrect in referring to Eleanor as “Dr Sidgwick”, so I withdraw my criticism of the usage. However, the point remains that, as far as I have been able to establish, this was not a style used either by her, or by her contemporaries either to or about her. I suspect that while she was happy to receive the recognition for her efforts, thereby publicising the cause of women’s education, she did not consider it right to use a title more appropriate to academic achievement. She might even have considered the use, based on only an honorary award, pretentious. The irony is of course that she would have been more than able to achieve the distinction on the basis of her intellectual capacities had the times been more favourable.

As a side issue, Ann Thomson at Newnham refers to Henry as “Dr Sidgwick”, but he was in the same position as his wife, his degrees being honorary. According to his biographer, Bart Schultz, he had a number of these, from the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Leipzig, Oxford and Budapest. He became Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1883.

Eleanor Sidgwick's scrolls seem to have disappeared. In addition to Newnham, I asked Jonathan Smith at Trinity College if they were there, as its library holds some of Mrs Sidgwick’s papers, and Peter Meadows at Cambridge University Library, which houses the SPR’s archives, but drew a blank.


In addition to the archivists mentioned, thanks are due to Alan Gauld for checking Ethel Sidgwick’s book on her aunt and to Trevor Hamilton for the relevant section of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (and for the information that before her untimely death Janet Oppenheim planned to write a full biography of Mrs/Dr Sidgwick, a project which is clearly overdue).