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Flora Philip (1865 – 1943)

The first female member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society and one of the first women to graduate from the University in 1893.

Flora Philip
Flora Stewart (nee Philip) in 1943.

Flora Philip was born in 1863 in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull to William Philip, a civil engineer; listed on her birth certificate as an Inspector of Decks and Piers, and Isabella McDougall.

Her formative education took place at Tain Academy on the north east coast of Scotland before a move to Edinburgh in 1883 to study with the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women (EAUEW).

Progress by stealth

Established in 1867 as the Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association (ELEA) by, amongst others, notable Scottish campaigners for women's education and suffrage Mary Crudelius and Sarah Mair.

Unlike the political approach taken by Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven, ELEA grew slowly; carefully cultivating the support of the Edinburgh establishment including Sir David Brewster, the Principal of the University of Edinburgh, and almost all of the University’s professors.

Despite not campaigning openly for a university education for women, the Association provided an education which, where possible, closely resembled that of the MA of the University of Edinburgh. In 1872 there was a further step forward when the University was persuaded to issues certificates to the Association’s students as proof of proficiency and as a confirmation of the legitimacy of the studies.

A first in maths

The mathematics courses provided by EAUEW included an advanced course introduced by teacher, reformer and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, George Chrystal. Flora clearly excelled and impressed as, in December 1886, she became the Society’s first female member; a significant achievement considering the prevailing attitudes of the day and Flora’s then lack of a university degree.

High speed education

At a meeting of EAUEW on Wednesday 22 April 1885, the Principal of Edinburgh University, Sir William Muir, presented Flora Philip the Edinburgh University Certificate in Arts. She had taken courses in English literature, moral philosophy, mathematics, and physiology.

In 1889, the Universities Act (Scotland) provided the change of law needed for Scottish universities to admit women and the University of Edinburgh did so in 1892. The certificate examinations that Flora had already taken were accepted as adequate replacements for the University examinations and so, having matriculated in 1892, she was able to graduate along with seven other pioneering female students in 1893.

Flora Philip graduation
(L - R) Maude Newbigin, Amelia Stirling, Principal Sir Thomas Holland and Flora Stewart (nee Philip) in 1943.

A pioneer recognised

Prior to graduating Flora taught at St George's High School for Girls but after marrying solicitor George Stewart in 1893 she stepped away from academic life.

She returned to the University in 1943 when, on the fiftieth anniversary of her graduation, she was invited back for a special ceremony along with Maude Newbigin and Amelia Stirling, two of her fellow graduates from 1893.

Flora died at a nursing home in Edinburgh later that year and is buried at Dean Cemetery.


Flora Philip biography (2008) by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, University of St Andrews.

Marit Hartveit (2009) How Flora got her cap: the higher education of women in Edinburgh, BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society for the History of Mathematics, 24:3, 147-158, DOI: 10.1080/17498430903008391.