Dame Rosemary Murray

First woman to be Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University
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The Independent Online

Rosemary Murray will be remembered as the first woman to be Vice- Chancellor of Cambridge University and the Founder President of the "third foundation" for women in Cambridge, New Hall. An energetic and inspiring woman, she also made her mark outside the university in a number of pioneering roles.

Alice Rosemary Murray, chemist and university administrator: born 28 July 1913; Lecturer in Chemistry, Royal Holloway College 1938-41; Lecturer in Chemistry, Sheffield University 1941-42; Lecturer in Chemistry, Girton College, Cambridge 1946-54, Fellow 1949, Tutor 1951-54; Demonstrator in Chemistry, Cambridge University 1947-52; Tutor in Charge, New Hall, Cambridge 1954-64, President 1964-81; Vice-Chancellor, Cambridge University 1975-77; DBE 1977; President, National Association of Adult Education 1977-80; Governor and Chairman, Keswick College of Education 1953-83; died Oxford 7 October 2004.

Rosemary Murray will be remembered as the first woman to be Vice- Chancellor of Cambridge University and the Founder President of the "third foundation" for women in Cambridge, New Hall. An energetic and inspiring woman, she also made her mark outside the university in a number of pioneering roles.

After schooling at Downe House, Murray read Chemistry at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in the early 1930s, followed by a DPhil. She then held teaching posts at Royal Holloway College, London, and Sheffield University, and would have been set for a conventional academic career had the Second World War not intervened.

In 1942 she chose to enter the WRNS as a rating, gaining rapid promotion as her leadership and administrative skills were recognised, and finishing four years later as a Chief Officer at Chatham, dealing with the demobilisation of thousands of Wrens. She often referred to this as a formative period that changed her life. She then moved to Cambridge as a Lecturer at Girton College and Demonstrator in the Department of Chemistry.

The war had changed Cambridge too. Previously a bastion of male privilege, the university passed in 1947, without opposition, a Grace approving the admission of women to degree status, ending a long battle for equal rights. Rosemary Murray became an active member of the Third Foundation Association, a group of pro-active women and some senior men who wanted to improve the eleven-to-one ratio of men to women undergraduates by starting another women's college. When the university gave permission, Murray was encouraged to apply for the post of Tutor in Charge and was delighted to be chosen to lead the new institution, with the assistance of one colleague, Miss Robin Hammond.

New Hall began in 1954 as an incorporated body of the university with 16 students in a converted guesthouse. Murray described her remit as "one big challenge" - but she loved nothing better than a challenge. Now in her forties, she was well equipped by previous experience as a senior Wren, lecturer, teacher and Tutor, to manage the admission and direction of students and to make the day-to-day decisions that would establish the character of the embryo college. Fortunately she was also a practical person, equally competent as handyman, gardener and boatkeeper.

Despite all the pressing demands of those early years, she never lost sight of her goal, which was to achieve permanence for New Hall as a full college of the university. To do this she needed successful students, endowment, and land and buildings.

Endless care was devoted to admissions: the setting and marking of an innovative examination paper, designed to "test logical thought and powers of expression," and the interviewing of the best candidates. Murray's aim was to widen access to all bright girls, regardless of background and schooling. Some students found her austere, but those who penetrated her reserve found her the kindest of women, and a wonderful teacher. She changed the course of many lives by her encouragement and personal example.

There was a tough job to be done in getting the new institution recognised and accepted, and, long before the term "networking" was coined, Murray was actively promoting New Hall to senior figures in the university, the city and outside Cambridge. She had an instinctive understanding of the importance of personal contact in oiling the wheels of administration and fund-raising.

The endowment appeal took off slowly, despite the fact that the college was willing to change its temporary name in exchange for a large benefaction, but crucially a gift of land was received from descendants of Charles Darwin; the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were appointed in 1959 in anticipation that sufficient money would be raised to build on it.

Murray's optimism was justified when large donations came in from the Wolfson and Elizabeth Nuffield foundations. From 1962 onwards she oversaw every detail of the plans and made some important contributions to the design of the new buildings: the executive architect described her as his ideal client. The opening of the Huntingdon Road buildings by the Queen Mother in 1965 marked a milestone for the institution and was a tremendous personal achievement for Rosemary Murray.

Despite financial difficulties and the climate of student unrest in the late Sixties, Murray did not buckle under pressure, but maintained a positive outlook. Students and Fellows endured Spartan conditions because heating and lighting were kept to the minimum to save expense, but how could they complain when their leader (designated President in 1964) was living in the same circumstances? As one Fellow put it, "Rosemary ruled us with an iron hand, but we didn't notice it . . . she was so calm and kind."

Difficulties were resolved - New Hall students were the first to have representation on a College Council - and further steps taken towards collegiate status. Statutes were drawn up in preparation, arousing much discussion over whether to become a mixed college as King's, Churchill and Clare were planning to do. Murray was keen to maintain the status quo, to offer women the choice of living in a single-sex society as New Hall still does today, and her view prevailed. She was still in post to celebrate the college's Silver Jubilee, retiring in 1981.

When New Hall achieved its royal charter and became a full college in 1972, one consequence was that the President became eligible to be vice-chancellor of the university. For her male colleagues, Murray's election to this high office in 1975 was "a bit like Mrs Thatcher becoming prime minister". She was not only the first woman to hold the position, but the first head of a modern college, and only the second woman to be vice-chancellor of a British university.

She overcame any resistance by displaying an in-depth knowledge of the university and its colleges, and by a mixture of steely resolve, shrewd judgement and "knock-out charm". She claimed hardly to notice that she was often the only woman on committees, but she did enjoy invitations to such all-male gatherings as college feasts. As a chairman she was respected for her natural authority, fairness and a gift for settling matters amicably. Her role brought great prestige to New Hall, and encouraged other Fellows to take part in the affairs of the university.

In the world outside Cambridge University Murray held many other responsible positions. She was a JP for 30 years; she served on the Lockwood Committee, 1963-65, which recommended a second university for Northern Ireland, and on the Armed Forces Pay Review Board from 1971 to 1981; she was also a director of The Observer and chair of the governors of Keswick Hall in Norwich, which later became part of the University of East Anglia. She was also the first woman director of a clearing bank (the Midland), the first woman liveryman, in the Goldsmiths' Company, and the first woman Deputy Lieutenant for Cambridgeshire. She received honorary degrees from five British and three American universities and was appointed DBE in 1977.

Rosemary Murray spoke with affection of her father, an admiral, and her mother, daughter of William Spooner, Warden of New College, Oxford. She inherited their Christian ethic and their belief that boys and girls should be treated as equals, exemplified in the way in which they raised their six children. Her close-knit family was important to her and she always took a great interest in the younger generation.

Looking back, she modestly described herself as "just terribly lucky", but the opportunities which came her way were turned into triumphs only by the application of her remarkable talents. A courageous response to challenges, including her failing eyesight in the last years, was the hallmark of her life. Although the vice-chancellorship was the pinnacle of her career, the sustained effort to launch New Hall, described in her book 1980 book New Hall, 1954-1972: the making of a college, is quite unparalleled in the history of Cambridge University, and will be her greatest memorial.

Alison Wilson