Do You Remember…? Chemistry Trailblazer Christina Miller

In 2012, Heriot-Watt opened brand new, environmentally sustainable halls of residence on campus. Named after Heriot-Watt graduate Christina Miller, they will provide modern accommodation for our students for years to come.

Christina Miller with colleagues

Christina Miller with colleagues

But who was she?

We asked Ann Jones, Heriot-Watt’s Head of Heritage and Information Governance, to tell us more.

“Christina Miller was a true trailblazer. She made pioneering discoveries in analytical chemistry when this field was still very much a male preserve, and was an inspirational teacher and a mentor to generations of students.

Dr Miller achieved a unique double accolade – in 1949 she was the first woman chemist to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and two years later the only woman among the first 25 Fellows of Heriot-Watt College.

Heriot-Watt at Chambers Street in the early 1900's.

Heriot-Watt at Chambers Street in the early 1900’s.

Born in Coatbridge in 1899, the bright and studious daughter of a stationmaster, Chrissie was quick to embrace the new career opportunities opening up for young women in research chemistry. In 1917 Chrissie enrolled on a degree course at the University of Edinburgh, combining this with a four year diploma at Heriot-Watt College, which was already renowned as the place to study for aspiring industrial chemists.

Heriot-Watt has a proud heritage of opening doors to opportunity. Founded in 1821 as the world’s first mechanics institute, the Watt had welcomed women students since 1869. But when Chrissie donned her lab coat and joined her fellow students at Heriot-Watt’s old home in Chambers Street, she entered a man’s world. Although many were away at war, male students still outnumbered female scholars by four to one and Chrissie was one of only three women to gain the diploma in chemistry during this period.

But none of this daunted Chrissie.

Even before she gained her Heriot-Watt Diploma and Associateship in 1921 the College Governors had marked her out for a bright future. Already commending Chrissie as a “distinguished student” they gave her privileged access to the laboratories to do her own research and her first step on the professional ladder, by employing her as a chemistry demonstrator at the princely wage of £20 per year.  With this relevant and practical grounding in her chosen field, Christina Miller went on to enjoy an outstanding career as a researcher and teacher.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Chapman and Mike Russell MSP opening the Christina Miller Halls of Residence

Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Chapman and Mike Russell MSP opening the Christina Miller Halls of Residence

Due to family commitments and health problems, Christina’s career came to an end early in 1961, although she still had all her wits about her right up until her death in 2001. It is said that she could provide the name, degree and graduation year of every student she had ever taught.

She was an inspiration to students, teachers and women everywhere, and it is only right that her name and achievements will continue to be remembered by students who will one day walk in her footsteps.”

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