The Lives and Times of Pioneering Women in Physics

Daphne Jackson and Gillian Gehring, the first female physics professors in the UK

By Professor Gillian Gehring


The university of Sheffield

Professor Gehring is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and remains extremely active within the University and beyond.

She was the first, and to date only, woman Professor of Physics at Sheffield, and only the second woman ever to hold a Professorship in a UK Physics Department. Professor Daphne Jackson was the first.


Daphne was born on the 23rd of September 1936 in Peterborough. Neither of her parents was academic but she was bright enough to get a place at Peterborough county grammar school for girls. She was very good at all aspects of science and maths but primarily classical physics.

In 1955 she went to Imperial College to study physics. She was one of only two female students on the course alongside 97 males. At first she was intimidated. She grew to love theoretical quantum physics and could have worked on any area in quantum physics but chose nuclear.

In 1958 she moved to the University of Surrey (known at the time as Battersea College of Advanced Technology) at the invitation of Lewis Alton (who had just become the head of physics there) to study nuclear physics (she was his first PhD student) and lecture. In 1962 she was awarded a PhD by London University.

Together Lewis and Daphne built up a very strong group in nuclear physics and the centre for Nuclear and Radiation Physics in Surrey is still the largest in the UK.

In 1965 Daphne became the youngest Fellow of the Institute of Physics and in 1967 she became a reader at the University of Surrey.

In 1970 she was awarded a DSc by the University of London because her papers on nuclear reactions were cited in other papers regularly.

In 1971, at the age of 34, Daphne succeeded Elton as Head of the Physics department. She was the only female professor in the University of Surrey with 29 academic and 35 research and support staff under her.

As Head of Department she reported in 1972 that she regarded it as her job to understand the research areas of all her colleagues.

Battersea’s specialism was for applied physics. About a third of the students in 1972 chose a sandwich course with a year in industry, hospital or school. Language sandwich students had an intensive course in their chosen language(s) and spent a year abroad. There were also joint degrees with economics and music. In music students were trained in the technical and artistic aspects of music and recording.

Daphne was very interested in instrumentation and she developed devices that could help scientists in other disciplines such as biology. By 1978 she had become more interested in medical physics. Her department started an MSc on radiation physics and environmental protection. She was actually working on breast cancer when she developed the disease in the mid 1980’s.

Daphne published 80 papers on Nuclear physics, 55 papers on medical physics and 46 papers on science for society. She also wrote books on nuclear reactions and atomic physics.

She was very active in liberal politics and campaigned for women’s rights because she was disappointed to see that talented women were lost in lowly jobs because they could not re-enter their career after a break.

Daphne was Dean of the Faculty of science (1977 to 1980 and 1984 to 1988) and sat on 18 committees.

Daphhe eventually rose to be the Dean of the university as well as sitting on a range of bodies; she held a senior position at the Meteorological Office, and was president of the Women’s Engineering Society and vice-president of the Institute of Physics,

Women’s Returners Fellowship Scheme

Daphne never married or had children but she decided that a most important issue was the loss of women to a scientific or engineering profession after spending time at home raising their children.

In 1985, when Daphne was president of WES (1983 to 1985), she devised a plan to help these women by allowing them to work for two years where they could readjust to their discipline after taking a break to have a child, becoming a carer or just because they followed their husband’s career rather than their own. Jackson is reported as saying, “Imagine a society that would allow Marie Curie to stack shelves in a supermarket simply because she took a career break for family reasons.

The returners’ scheme was launched in 1986 as a pilot scheme hoping it would be taken over by a public body.

“Qualified women who are unemployed or under-employed following a career break for family commitments represent an appalling waste of talent and of investment in their initial education. Many such women are eager to return to their original careers or to a new field of activity for which their initial education is relevant, provided that retraining can be given and that they can, at least initially, work on a part-time basis.”

Daphne wrote letters to women’s magazines, the national press, articles for the New Scientist and Open University and got 132 applicants for her scheme.

She raised nearly £400000 from 12 major donors and small donations from 6 other companies.

By 1991 there were 15 fellows in place at 13 universities with funding from 10 different funding bodies.

A Fellow works part time for 2 to 3 years and undergoes a retraining programme.

Daphne did all the early work on her own and she promised she would “act as a well-informed counsellor” to all returners. Later Betty Johnson, a Fellow, became her assistant.

Ironically Daphne was diagnosed with cancer – a disease she was helping to fight through her work with the Institute for Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital. She had published 55 articles on the use of nuclear physics in medicine. She was awarded an OBE in 1987.

She died in Guildford in February 1991 of cancer and the following year the Daphne Jackson Trust was launched to advance Jackson’s idea of helping qualified women return to work. The trust helps about ten people a year. Initially these were women who had brought up a family, but people who have taken a career break for other reasons are considered for support, as are male applicants.

At the time of her death she was still actively supervising graduates students and offering advice from her hospital bed.

Daphne left the physics department in Surrey in excellent shape. She had written important papers on nuclear physics, X-ray absorption and medical physics.

Her returners’ scheme was very ground breaking. It is still evolving and flourishing. Unfortunately there are more good applicants than there is funding for. The aim to have the same percentage of women in physics based occupations as the percentage that actually graduate is still not achieved.

Professor Gehring’s personal memories of Professor Jackson

During the mid-1980’s Gillian was a lecturer in Oxford and a physics tutor at a women’s college she was also the mother to two daughters. For the first time she was asked to talk about women and science. To help she phoned Daphne and during the long talk she learned that Daphne’s mother, suffering from dementia, was living with her.

At a big EPSRC meeting Gillian heard Daphne appealing to UK academics to appoint more women professors as she had been the only one for 19 years. She also appealed to those in the establishment to put her returners’ scheme on a formal, secure footing.

In the early days Daphne asked Gillian to help her referee applications for returners’ fellowships and she has continued to do this for the trust set up after Daphne’s death. The trust has now helped more than 250 women restart their careers.

Professor Gehring’s background

Gillian was born in 1941 and attended school in Nottingham.

In 1962 she obtained a BSC from Manchester University (New Manchester Physics Course)

In 1965 she obtained a DPhil from Oxford University on the subject of theoretical magnetism. She was supervised by Water Marshall

From 1965 to 1967 Gillian was a Leverhulme Research Fellow at St Hugh’s

From 1967 to 1968 she was a NATO Fellow at Berkley California

From 1968 to 1989 Gillian was a tutor at St Hugh’s college Oxford where she was a lecturer in theoretical physics,_Oxford

In 1968 Gillian married Karl Gehring and had two daughters (one in 1979 and the other in 1981)

From 1989 to 2006 she became professor of physics at the University of Sheffield. Her specialism was condensed matter physics

From 2006 she is emeritus professor still involved in active research with 5 PhD research students


Professor Gillian Gehring, her portrait and artist Frances Bell

The portrait was unveiled by Dame Athene Swan and it is the first portrait of a woman to hang in Firth Hall, University of Sheffield. The portrait was commissioned to help to correct the gender balance perceived by students and visitors to the University.

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