The Lives and Times of Pioneering Women in Physics

Edith Stoney MA: Pioneer of medical physics

By Professor Francis Duck


Edith was born on the 6th of January 1869 in Dublin. Her father, George Johnstone Stoney FRS was an eminent physicist who gave the electron its name in 1891 as the ‘fundamental unit quantity of electricity’.


The picture above left shows Edith Stoney (left) with her sister Florence and their father, G. Johnstone Stoney (Newnham College Cambridge Archives)

George Johnstone Stoney FRS (15 February 1826 – 5 July 1911) was an Anglo-Irish physicist. From 1848 to 1852 he worked as an astronomy assistant to William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse.

One of Edith brothers, George, was an engineer and a FRS and one of her sisters was a radiologist and an OBE. Her cousin, George, was the first to suggest a device for producing rapidly oscillating electric currents to generate electromagnetic waves, a phenomenon which was first shown to exist experimentally by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1888 and her uncle, Bindon FRS was Engineer of Dublin Port, renowned for building a number of the main Dublin bridges, and developing the Quayside.

George Francis FitzGerald (3 August 1851 – 22 February 1901) was an Irish professor of “natural and experimental philosophy” (i.e., physics) at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, during the last quarter of the 19th century.


Edith’s mother, Margaret died in 1872 leaving her father to bring up five children. He never remarried.


Edith Anne Stoney c. early 1890s

Initially Edith was privately educated at home but she later moved to the Royal College of Science which accepted women. She was an excellent mathematician and gained a scholarship at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she achieved a First in the Part I Tripos examination in 1893. However, she was not awarded a University of Cambridge degree as women were excluded from graduation until 1948.,_Cambridge

An interesting side note to this is about the position of senior wrangler. The Senior Wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge University in England, a position once regarded as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain”. In 1890 the senior wrangler was technically a woman, Philippa Fawcett, but because women weren’t allowed to graduate they gave her the title “above the senior wrangler”.


Philippa Garrett Fawcett (4 April 1868 – 10 June 1948) was an English mathematician and educationalist.

During her time at Newnham, Edith was in charge of the College telescope and she was later awarded a BA and a MA from Trinity College, Dublin, after they accepted women in 1904. The observatory position helped her reputation enormously and she advised female colleagues to try and get similar jobs.

Edith briefly worked on gas turbine calculations and searchlight design for Sir Charles Algernon Parsons.


Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, OM, KCB, FRS (13 June 1854 – 11 February 1931) was a British engineer, best known for his invention of the steam turbine.

Sir Charles had a very high opinion of Edith. He wrote the following to Edith’s father in 1903

“The problems she has attacked and solved have been in relation to the special curvature of mirrors for obtaining beams of light of particular shapes. These investigations involved difficult and intricate original calculations ….

Your daughter also made calculations in regard to the gyrostatic forces brought on to the bearings of marine steam turbines through the pitching of the vessel”


The above picture shows Sir Charles’ experimental vessel Turbinia which was built in a light design of steel by the firm of Brown and Hood, based at Wallsend on Tyne in the Northeast of England.

Edith needed to earn a living so in 1895 she took a mathematics teaching post at the Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

In 1899 Edith gained an appointment as a physics lecturer at the London School of Medicine for Women, the only woman in the 1890s to hold such a position. Her first tasks were to set up a physics laboratory and design the physics course.

The laboratory was planned for 20 students, and the course content was pure physics, as required by university regulations; it included mechanics, magnetism, electricity, optics, sound, heat and energy.

In 1902 Edith and her sister Florence, who had qualified as a medical doctor in 1898, set up a radiology service at the Royal Free Hospital in 1902.

During their time at the Royal Free Hospital and the London School of Medicine for Women, the two sisters actively supported the women’s suffrage movement, though they were opposed to the direct violent action with which it was later associated. Edith also played a central role in the British Federation of University Women (BFUW) and she was elected treasurer, in her absence, at the first executive meeting on 9 October 1909.

Edith felt very strongly that women should be able to do any job they wanted whether it was a lawyer or a prison officer. She set up a fund to train women to do jobs normally done by men.

At the executive meeting on 19 October 1912, she proposed the names of two members for a subcommittee to secure the passing into law of a bill to enable women to become barristers, solicitors or parliamentary agents. The legislation was eventually enacted after the war within the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

Edith Stoney resigned her post at the school in March 1915 and it was recorded that ‘with due regret and most unwillingly a change is desirable in the physics lectureship’. Edith Stoney was offered £300 on tendering her resignation. At the end of May 1915 she gave up the position of treasurer of the BFUW.

World War I

Both Florence and Edith offered their services to the British Red Cross at the War Office in London, to provide a radiological service to support the troops in Europe, on the day Britain declared war. They were ready because they had made preparation for casualties due to the unrest in Ireland. Their offer was refused, because they were women. Florence set up her own unit with the Women’s Imperial Service League and spent the next 6 months in Europe, primarily Antwerp. Edith organised supplies from London where she also served on the League’s committee. Florence returned to London at the time Edith resigned from the London School of Medicine for Women. Edith contacted the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), an organisation formed in 1914 to give medical support in the field of battle and financed by the women’s suffrage movement. The organisation had gained agreement to set up a new 250-bed tented hospital at Domaine de Chanteloup, Sainte-Savine, near Troyes (France), funded by the Cambridge women’s colleges of Girton and Newnham and it became Edith’s role to plan and operate the x-ray facilities. She established stereoscopy to localise bullets and shrapnel and introduced the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of gas gangrene, interstitial gas being a mandate for immediate amputation to give any chance of survival.


The image above left is of an X-ray from Florence Stoney showing a splintered femur with shrapnel fragments.

The image above right shows a War Office pattern field service induction coil and x-ray tube. Papers of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, The Women’s Library

In the spring of 1915 Marie Curie gave advice to the Scottish Women’s Hospital about the specification of an X-ray van.

The hospital was near the front line and, in her own words, by September 1915, ‘the town had been evacuated, the station had been mined, and we heard the heavy guns ever going at night time’. The unit was entirely female, except for two part-time male drivers, and her technical assistant, Mr Mallett.

Edith and her team were assigned to the Corps Expéditionnaire d’Orient and order to move to Serbia. After boarding the steamship Mossoul in Marseille, they reached Salonika (known as Thessaloniki in modern Greece) on 3 November 1915, where they took the night train north to Ghevgheli (now Gevgelija in modern Republic of Macedonia), on the Serbian side of the Greek border. There they set up a hospital in an old silk factory where they treated patients with injuries ranging from frostbite to severe lung and head wounds.

Edith made a request for a generator, which was turned down however during a brief visit to Paris she was able to buy one.

From Ghevgheli Edith wrote in a report that

“The electric light was needed in the pharmacy until the doctors were finished, and it was often late before I could stop the little engine and pack it up warm for the night ….

…. When I creaked up the ladders in my stockinged feet to the loft where fifty-four of us slept, there could be no thought of washing, with iced already in the jug”

On the 6th December 1916 Edith and her staff had to retreat to Salonika owing allied defeats at the hands of the Bulgarians. Amazingly within eleven days Edith had set up her hospital and by January 1917 she had all her equipment working.

Edith in Salonika

“Grey uniform, grey hair, pale blue eyes, very intent on her job – no other interests, in and out of the X-ray rooms and developing rooms like a moth”


“She is a funny looking old maid with untidy grey hair and large blue eyes …………… the most weird olf person”

Despite the lack of equipment and resources, she established an electrotherapy department and various pieces of equipment for the muscular rehabilitation of the soldiers in their care. This involved using radiant light and heat, electric baths and high frequency massages. She also assisted with problems on two British hospital ships, on which the x-ray systems had been damaged during a storm, and gave support to the SWH unit in Ostrovo (now Arnissa on Lake Vegoritida formerly lake Ostrovo in Northern Greece), which arrived during September 1916. She had a break for sick leave in December 1917 and returned until the following summer.

Edith applied for an appointment as an army camp radiologist in Salonika, but her demand was blocked by the War Office.

In October 1917, she returned to France to lead the x-ray departments at the SWH hospitals of Royaumont and Villers-Cotterêts. In March 1918, she had to supervise a camp closure and retreat for the third time, when Villers-Cotterêts was overrun by the German troups. During the final months of the war the fighting intensified and there was a steep increase in workload; in the month of June alone the x-ray workload peaked at over 1,300, partly because of an increased use of fluoroscopy.

Her war service was recognised by several countries, and she was awarded the “Médaille des épidémies du ministère de la Guerre” and the Croix de Guerre from France, the Order of St Sava from Serbia, and the Victory and British War Medals from Britain.


Edith Stoney’s medals held at Newnham College, Cambridge. From left to right: British War Medal (reverse), Victory Medal (obverse), Serbian Order of St Sava (reverse), French Croix de Guerre (reverse) and French “Médaille des épidémies” (reverse).


Map locating the different Field Hospitals where Edith Anne Stoney worked during WWI. Map represents borders in 1914


Edith Stoney (centre), 1921. Department of Household and Social Science, King’s College for Women, King’s College London Archive

On returning to England at the end of the war, Edith Stoney took a post as lecturer in physics in the Household and Social Science department at King’s College for Women which she held until retirement in 1925. She was very interested in radiation protection, which was in its infancy, as operators often got burnt.

Edith and Florence travelled in India and South Africa to study the effects of UV and dietary vitamin D on osteomalacia.

Osteomalacia is the softening of the bones caused by defective bone mineralization secondary to inadequate levels of available phosphate and calcium, or because of overactive resorption of calcium from the bone which can be caused by hyperparathyroidism (which causes hypercalcemia). In children the disease is known as rickets.

After leaving King’s she moved to Bournemouth, where she lived with her sister Florence, who was suffering from spinal cancer (and died in 1932).

During her retirement, Edith resumed her work with the BFUW for which she had acted as the first treasurer before the war. She travelled widely and, in 1934, she spoke to the Australian Federation of University Women on the subject of women in engineering, highlighting the contribution made by women workers during the war. In 1936, she established the Johnstone and Florence Stoney Studentship in the BFUW, for ‘research in biological, geological, meteorological or radiological science undertaken preferably in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa’. The studentship is now administered by Newnham College, Cambridge, and supports clinical medical students going abroad for their elective period.

Newspaper reports from this time described her walking with a stick and “with her silvery hair and kind blue eyes, she looks as if she might have engaged all her life in studying Celtic literature”: “Small and slight almost to the point of fragility, she names running a motor car, bicycling, and gardening as her favourite hobbies”.

Edith Stoney died; aged 69 years, on 25 June 1938, and obituaries were printed in both the scientific and medical press – Nature, The Lancet- and national newspapers in England, The Times and Australia. She left a £3000 bequest for a bursary for a physics or maths student from Newnham to study medicine at the London School of Medicine for Women.

In her Lancet Obituary, an ex-student of hers noted: “Her lectures on physics mostly developed into informal talks, during which Miss Stoney, usually in a blue pinafore, scratched on a blackboard with coloured chalks, turning anxiously at intervals to ask ‘Have you taken my point?’. She was perhaps too good a mathematician … to understand the difficulties of the average medical student, but experience had taught her how distressing these could be” “…..a gentle kindly figure ….” Lancet 9th July 1938


The physics laboratory at the London (Royal Free) School of Medicine for Women, showing Edith Stoney (centre) with her medical students (c.1912) Royal Free Hospital Archives

Edith was remembered for her considerable bravery and resourcefulness in the face of extreme danger, and her imagination in contributing to clinical care under the most difficult conditions of war. As a strong advocate of education for women, she enabled young graduate women to spend time on research overseas and another to enable physicists to enter medical school thanks to the fund she created. Through her work and engagements, Edith Stoney was remembered as a pioneer of medical physics.


“Physicists and Physicians: A History of Medical Physics from the Renaissance to Röntgen”, by Francis A Duck, 309 pages. York: Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, 2013. ISBN 978-1903613559

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