Archives: Who was Rosemary Murray?

Our new Centre for Learning in the heart of campus is named the Murray Centre after past pupil Rosemary Murray. But why was she so important that we named a building after her?

15 November 2019

Rosemary started at Downe House aged fourteen

Alice Rosemary Murray was born in summer 1913. The eldest of six children, she grew up in a happy, talented and energetic naval family. In July 1926, Rosemary and her family visited Downe House and Rosemary started at Downe House in January 1927, aged 14.

An enthusiastic student

Rosemary thrived at Downe House and earned the nickname ‘Archie’ short for Archimedes (the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer). She was a very active Girl Guide and involved in lots of societies.

In March 1931 Rosemary applied to Oxford to read Chemistry at Lady Margaret Hall and was offered a place to commence her studies in 1932. In celebration, Miss Willis awarded the school a half-day holiday!

A career in universities

Rosemary spent six happy years at Oxford University. Then following her degree in Chemistry, she went on to become one of the first women to receive a DPhil in Science.

Before World War II broke out, Rosemary lectured in Chemistry at the Royal Holloway College, London, and at Sheffield University. During the war, she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS) and spent most of the war in the service, eventually becoming a Chief Officer.

Rosemary saw a problem

After the war Rosemary became a Lecturer in Chemistry at Girton College, Cambridge, and a Tutor there in 1951. At that time, male students outnumbered female students by ten to one – the highest proportion of male undergraduates of any university in the country – and Rosemary Murray became involved in discussions with other female academics about how to solve this problem.

In 1954 New Hall was founded for women students at Cambridge University and in 1964, Rosemary became President of the College until she retired from the position in 1981, continuing as an Honorary Fellow.

Images show Rosemary with two students in her New Hall study, 1954, and Rosemary and her assistant with the first cohort of New Hall students, 1954.

The first female Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge

In 1975, Rosemary Murray became the first woman Vice-Chancellor in Cambridge University’s 765-year history. She was not only the first woman, but also the first Vice-Chancellor from a 20th century college and the first to establish the Vice-Chancellor’s place in the Old Schools.

Rosemary was not just an academic figure; she also played a major role in the life of the City and County. She also received honorary degrees from universities in Britain and America and was appointed DBE in 1977.

Murray Edwards College

In 2004 Mrs Ros Edwards and her husband donated £30m to New Hall, Cambridge to be used to help the College recruit more students from working-class homes and other non-traditional backgrounds. The name of New Hall changed to Murray Edwards College which pleased and humbled Rosemary greatly. Rosemary Murray passed away in that same year on 8 October, aged 91.

As a result of her 30 years of dedication to New Hall, thousands of women, of many different nationalities, have benefited from a Cambridge education. Murray Edwards College, as it is now known, is Rosemary’s greatest memorial.

Rosemary and Downe House

Rosemary Murray always stayed in touch with Downe House and with Miss Willis. She returned to attend Seniors’ Weekends and attended Downe House Seniors’ Association (DHSA) meetings once that was formed in 1946. Rosemary also served on the Downe House Board of Governors for 30 years.

Throughout her life, Rosemary enjoyed sailing, walking and skiing in the Alps, and in later life loved gardening. She studied art and architecture and listened to music. Even in late retirement, she continued to bind books for New Hall library and helped children at the local Oxford Middle School with reading practice.

The Murray Centre is named after Rosemary to commemorate her time at Downe House and her achievements beyond.


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