Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sunday Obituary - The Advancement of Science for Girls

Hilda R. F. Cowie died in Sutton, Surrey in 1965, aged 93.  "Miss Cowie" had been a teacher and for 24 years, from its foundation to her retirement in 1943, was head mistress of Durham Girls County School

The carefully saved clip of her obituary, that I found amongst my great aunts' belongings suggested that she had been a significant figure in the lives of Lillian and Nancy Thompson and their elder sister Marjorie who had all attended the school.

Little further information is available about "Miss Cowie" but the history of the Durham Girls County School is an interesting one.  It was formed in 1918 when Durham's highly unusual mixed grammar school was split into separate boys and girls schools.

Mixed sex education at this level was very rare at the time as was the school's scientific and technical focus and endeavour to provide as much access as possible to poorer families.

This unusual combination reflected the spirit of the chemist and educationalist James Finlay Weir Johnston in whose name the original grammar school was founded.

Nancy Thompson attended Durham Girls
County School in the 1920s and 30s
Johnston was a fascinating character who was the first lecturer in Chemistry at Durham University.  He travelled widely in Germany, Scandinavia and the United States in his chemistry research and wrote the internationally noted "The Chemistry of Common Life", shortly before his death in 1855.

But he combined his research with a passion for wider adult education and social welfare.  He was a founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave free public lectures, open to all, at Durham Town Hall and in 1847 recommended changes to public sanitation across the town to improve public health.

It is not clear why Johnstone's school was subsequently split into separate Girls and Boys Grammars but if the education of my aunts is anything to go by, his scientific spirit appears to have continued in the Girls School that Hilda Cowie established and led for so long.

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