The Business of Understanding: Professor Annie Altschul

Portrait of Prof. Altschul (Coll-1000)

Born in Vienna on 18th February 1919, Annie Altschul spent her formative years in Austria before moving to England in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Austria in 1938. Years later, recalling her departure from her home country, Annie wrote in the Journal of Mental Health Nursing:

 As a socialist with Jewish background, it was really rather urgent that I leave.

Leaving the place where she grew up proved initially difficult for Annie, who began her life in London working as a nanny to try to improve her English. Yet, as Annie herself often put it, ‘having confidence in people facilitates success,’ and, thanks to her positive attitude, she soon became a proficient speaker and a well-respected member of her new community.

Then, with the official start of the war in Britain, Annie decided to enrol for training as a nurse, a decision that would change her life forever. After beginning her education as a general nurse in a voluntary hospital in Ealing, London, Annie promptly moved on to become a staff nurse at the Mill Hill Hospital, which, after the end of the war, was returned to its original grounds at Mauldsley Hospital, a renowned psychiatric centre. At Mill Hill first, and Maudsley then, Annie’s interest for psychiatric nursing was sparked, an interest that would last a lifetime.

Indeed, soon after the end of the war, alongside her duties as a nurse and her part-time position as a mother’s help to the Parfit’s family –a job that led Annie to a lifelong friendship with Jessie Parfit–, Annie started taking evening classes at Birkbeck College, classes that eventually resulted in a degree in Psychology.

It was exactly the combination of nursing and psychiatric services that won Annie, in 1964, a one-year, WHO-funded post at the University of Edinburgh. Having proved herself an invaluable asset for the University, at the expiration of her one-year post, Annie was invited to become a full-time member of staff in the relatively new department of Nursing Studies. There, Annie was able to reach the position of senior lecturer in just a handful of years, before becoming the University’s second ever Professor of Nursing and Chair of Nursing Studies in 1976.

Interview with Prof. Altschul on The Student (Coll-1000)

During her tenure, Professor Altschul oversaw the introduction of master’s courses in nursing administration, nursing education, and health education. In 1978, she was awarded a Fellowship by the Royal College of Nursing,

In recognition of the contribution […] made to the advancement of the science and art of nursing, in particular […] psychiatric nursing.

Of her work at the intersection of nurses education and psychiatric nurses, Professor Altschul said,

In some kind of a way, I represent something of a unified nursing profession; but only in some sort of a way. And in other sort of ways I feel I have a great deal more in common with some other professions who care about the mentally ill […] than I have with certain kinds of general nurses.

In 1983, following an illustrious career, Professor Altschul decided to retire from the University of Edinburgh in order to

leave the way clear for a younger woman, who by dint of youth will be “full of ideas.”

Upon her retirement, Professor Altschul was awarded the title of Emeritus Professor, as well as a CBE in recognition of her services to mental health nursing.

Of her attitude toward patient care in psychiatric nursing, Professor Altschul wrote in 1999:

At some point I came to the conclusion that what a schizophrenic person is saying makes sense to them, and my business is to try to understand it. They code messages differently from the way other people code them, rather like some forms of painting or music. And if I don’t understand the meaning, that’s my fault.

It was this attitude, as well as her expertise and knowledge of the nursing profession that rendered Professor Altschul a pillar of the nursing community:

She project the modest, down-to-earth, honest, practical, straight-talking, genial, humorous, self-effacing, challenging and, all too often, irreverent characteristics that many nurses believe lie at the human heart of psychiatric nursing.

This University BLOGS: Archives of University of Edinburgh Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Society (1973-1999)

BLOGS official logo (EUA IN20/SOC/BIS)

In celebration of LGBT+ History Month this February, I thought it might prove interesting to look back at the archives of the University of Edinburgh Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Society (BLOGS) to see how the Society and its aims developed over the course of the years, and what are some of the innovative initiatives that were launched by the society to safeguard and promote the well-being of LGBT+ students at the University.

The history of the LGBT+ student society at Edinburgh begun in 1973, when the Edinburgh University Gay Society was officially founded. Originally catering exclusively to male homosexual students, the Society was created, according to its original constitution, in an attempt to

Meet the social needs of the 10% of the student population of Edinburgh University who are basically homosexual in orientation.

Under this banner, the Society operated on a variety of fronts, from the offering of a befriending service, to the mounting of campaigns bringing awareness on the problem of homophobia and its effects on the gay community.

In the academic year 1982-83, the society officially changed their name from ‘Edinburgh University Gay Society’ to ‘University of Edinburgh Gay and Lesbian Society’. The addition of the word ‘lesbian’ to the official title demonstrated the Society’s willingness to pursue inclusivity by continuing to develop and revise their policies. In 1985, the Society established a newsletter divulged to both members and non-members, and in 1988 they sought association to national lesbian and gay organisations so as to provide access to resources and services for their members.

In 1989, in a bid to redress the cultural imbalance discriminating the homosexual student community, the society applied to the Student Association for the provision of funding aimed at building a Lesbian and Gay Library:

It has been noted by the society that Section 28 has been used against public libraries to prevent the further acquisition of gay literature and books relating to gay life and issues. It was further noted that such books are proportionately more expensive to buy than more mainstream heterosexual publications and often not purchasable by students on a low income. These gay students are deprived of their very own form of that written culture which the heterosexual world esteems so highly for its openness, liberality and freedom of thought.

This bid was followed in 1997 by a second attempt at acquiring relevant literature to be held by the society and shared with members on a lending and consulting basis. Simultaneously, the Society decided to take up subscriptions to relevant academic and non-academic journals, so as to provide access to a constant stream of fresh and updated materials.

BLOGS newsletter (EUA IN20/SOC/BIS)

Meanwhile, in 1996, the Society voted again to change their definition, this time including the term ‘bisexual’ in their title. BLOGs was officially adopted as the Society’s name and new banners were ordered to honour the occasion. During the same academic year, the Society organised, in partnership with the Student Association, the first Sexuality Awareness Week, an annual event that, under different titles, continued for a number of years. Prominent non-binary speakers were invited to participate in the Society’s events and speak on a number of different issues, ‘positively promot[ing] images’ of the bisexual, gay and lesbian community.

The aim of the Society was re-defined accordingly

To represent the interests of bisexual, lesbian and gay students at Edinburgh University by campaigning within the university and organising regular meetings, speakers and social events.

And a new ‘right to self-definition’ principle was added to the constitution:

The Society accepts its members and others attending meetings as being the gender, sexuality and sexual orientation which they choose to define themselves, regardless of birth certificate, physical appearance, usual gender role or sexual or other behaviour. They will be accepted thus for the purposes of attending regular and special meetings, and in how they are addressed and treated in the group.

Throughout the years from 1990 to 1999, the Society organised a number of outings to the London Pride, begun providing ‘coming-out leaflets’ and leaflets on sexual health at Fresher’s Week events, and collaborated with other LGB organisations and groups to provide their members with a range of helpful information.

BLOGS programme (EUA IN20/SOC/BIS)

In 1999, the Society applied for a grant aimed at acquiring a new banner:

We do have a banner at present, and intend to continue using it. However, at our AGM at the end of last term, the name of the society was changed from Bisexual, Lesbian or Gay Society to include the term Transgendered, and this needs to be shown on all of the society’s publicity.

The introduction of the term ‘transgendered’ into the Society’s name and the ‘right to self-definition’ principle into the Society’s constitution marked a further step along the road to a project of inclusivity that had started more than 25 years earlier. The attention to the ever-developing language surrounding LGBT+ identity and the support afforded to self-definition initiatives made the Society one of the most progressive organisations within the Student Association, and helped shape the student community into a more understanding, equal and inclusive one.

7 Tips for Running a Successful Campaign (according to Helen Lowe)

Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library

When Helen Lowe conducted her campaign in favour of the preservation of the special status afforded to the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women and Children and the Elsie Inglis Maternity Memorial Hospital as hospitals staffed exclusively by female medical professionals, her experience taught her a great many lessons on the running of an effective campaign. Luckily for us, we can access these lesson and learn from Helen’s success. Here are some of the tips and tricks that Helen’s papers –hosted by the Lothian Health Services Archive—seem to recommend:

1. Have a clear objective

Sometimes, issues surrounding certain specific campaigns can be complex and multi-faceted. It is important, however, to keep actions focussed on specific aims and to be able to explain those aims concisely and clearly.

‘A mass meeting is to be held in the Usher Hall on Wednesday, April 17th at 7.30 p.m. with the object of passing a resolution to initiate action to safeguard the maintenance of the status quo of the […] hospitals as hospitals for women patients, staffed by women.’

Despite not being unaware of the larger issues facing female medical staff and patients throughout Scotland and the UK, Helen knew that in order for her campaign to gain momentum, it needed to maintain a solid, central statement of intent. This ensured all efforts would be geared toward achieving the most important or most pressing goals.

2. Find allies

As Helen’s correspondence demonstrates, building a strong network of interested participants in relevant organisations and institutions is fundamental to a fruitful campaign. And it’s important to remember that allies can be found where one least expects them:

‘Several of the most distinguished medical men in Edinburgh are on the side of the women.’

Despite the staffing of the hospital being primarily a female concern, gaining the trust and support of ‘the most distinguished medical men in Edinburgh’ proved an essential boost for Helen’s campaign, for it served to fight the gender stereotyping attached to the issue, and thus leave space for more administrative, medical and legal discussions.

3. Raise public interest

Support from appropriate political, professional or cultural groups can certainly do much to improve the chances of a campaign, but nothing is more powerful than public opinion. As Helen puts it in one of her letters:

‘The wider the support, the more likely we are to succeed.’

Once the aims and methods of the campaign have been established, it is time to shout about it and make sure more and more people take the cause to heart.

Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library

4. Create easily actionable tasks

Getting people to listen to your concerns is certainly an essential part of the success of a campaign. Taking action, however, is what makes the difference. So as to encourage a larger number of supporters to transform that support into action, it’s important to come up with simple and effective steps that everyone can take with relative ease:

‘At the meeting each member of the audience took away a card […] in order that they might send it to their Member of Parliament. […] We wish to impress our Members of Parliament with the sincere demand there is for the retention of the women’s hospitals.’

By providing all supporters with a pre-written postcard, Helen ensured that everyone who wished to take part in the action to save the hospitals would be able to do so without requiring too much effort or commitment.

5. Avoid misconceptions

Sometimes, information doesn’t seem to come across the way it is supposed to. Be it the consequence of an honest mistake or an attempt on the part of the opposition to sabotage the action, this can result in losing supporters and, in the long run, will damage the campaign. In order to avoid misunderstandings, give supporters, allies, and collaborators a chance to ask questions and clarify issues. As a letter to Helen states:

‘Another lady, who has now sent a card to her MP, said that she had refused to sign before because she was under the impression that this was an anti-male doctor campaign. She now fully understands the situation. ‘

The mass meeting in Usher Hall offered Helen and the other campaigners an opportunity to set the record straight as to the aims of their campaign, so that supporters could be reassured in their loyalty to the cause.

6. Oppose misrepresentation

Media coverage can be a significant ally for a campaign, yet not all press is indeed good press. When issues at the core of the campaign get repeatedly misrepresented, the campaign’s aims run the risk of becoming overshadowed. As Helen’s letters to newspaper show us, accurately and systematically opposing misrepresentation allows for the running of a fairer and more open campaign:

‘Mr. Nixon Browne, however, in his reply as reported made statements which could lead to serious misconceptions.’

With politeness and decision, Helen called out Mr. Nixon Browne’s ‘misconception’ as to the campaign and the way the press had reported on these, so as to project a more accurate image of the struggles to maintain the status of the hospitals.

Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library

7. Do not give up

Setbacks are a natural part of every campaign. Thinks don’t always run smoothly, and, sometimes, carefully planned action doesn’t lead to the expected results. Don’t lose heart, though.

‘It was decided at the meeting to pursue our cause until Justice is done. ‘

In the face of failure, it’s crucial to remember the reasons behind a campaign, and to know that, with the support of allies and a little extra time and effort, anything can be achieved.

Gender and Equality: First Semester Overview

From the Papers of Annie Hutton Numbers (Coll-649)

A little over three months ago, I began my internship at the Centre of Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. My aim was that of uncovering hidden stories of marginalised groups, and I started my research by focussing primarily on narratives of women whose remarkable lives have gone, until now, unnoticed. As the first semester draws to a close, I thought it might be interesting to put together an overview of some of the marvellous finds I bumped into whilst searching the University collections — finds that, due to a lack of time or the need for more in-depth research, haven’t quite made yet it into fully fledged blog posts:

Annie Hutton Numbers – Numbers graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1918 with the degree of MA (hons) Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and then again in 1920 with the degrees of BSc in Mathematics and BSc in Chemistry. She was among the first women to obtain a degree from the Department of Chemistry, and went on to work for the University in the capacities of Assistant Lecturer and Demonstrator. While on the university staff, Numbers undertook research towards the award of a PhD in Chemistry, which she eventually gained in 1926 for the thesis The Influence of Substituents on the Optical Rotary Power of Compounds.

Numbers has a Wikipedia page, as well as her own entry in the Our History directory of the University of Edinburgh.

From the Papers of Annie Hutton Numbers, photographer unknown (Coll-649)
From the Papers of Annie Hutton Numbers (Coll-649)

Marjorie Rackstraw – After suffering from many health-related issues, in 1924 Rackstraw became Warden of Masson Hall at The University of Edinburgh, a position that she held until 1937. In her capacity as Warden, she served as an adviser to women students, counselling on matters regarding accommodation, education, and future careers. In 1937 Rackstraw moved from Edinburgh to London, where she took up many volunteering projects in favour of the elderly, war refugees, and homeless. Thirty years after leaving Masson Hall, Rackstraw contributed financially to the building of a new hall of residence.

Entries on Marjorie Rackstraw can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Our History directory of the University of Edinburgh, and intern volunteer Elsie talks about the Papers of Marjorie Rackstraw (Coll-705) in her blog post on Carpe Librum.

From the Papers of Marjorie Rackstraw, photographer unknown (Coll-705)

Susan Binnie – From 1915, Binnie studied Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where she was one of the first female students allowed to participate in medical education alongside her male colleagues. Binnie graduated with the degrees on MB and ChB in the early 1920s, and went on to work at her brother’s newly set-up practice in Midcalder before taking a post as a pathologist at Bangour Hospital, West Lothian. Official records show Binnie leaving the profession after her marriage and the birth of her two children. New evidence, however, suggests that Binnie might have continued practicing medicine well after this, although more research is required to ascertain the facts.

Susan Binnie, photographer unknown, 1920s (Coll-1052)

Margaret Stuart Tyndall Bruce of Falkland – Daughter of Robert Hamilton Bruce, Bruce was a heiress and landowner who inherited Falkland Palace from her uncle John Hamilton Bruce in 1826. Despite most of her achievements both as a business woman and a charitable figure being attributed to her husband Onesiphorus Tyndall-Bruce, it was Mrs Bruce’s fortune that funded many initiatives crucial to the life of her community, including the construction of new buildings, land purchases, employment and charitable work.

A digital image of Bruce’s portrait, part of the University of Edinburgh Art Collection, can be found on the Art UK website, while more about the life of the Tyndall-Bruces is described in this leaflet for the Tyndall Bruce Monument.

Marjorie Jean Oswald Kennedy – Born in 1915 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, during the Second World War Kennedy begun serving with the Women Royal Naval Service before moving, in 1943, to Bletchely park, were she worked as a codebreaker for allied forces trying to decrypt encrypted messages transmitted through the German Enigma machine. Following the end of the war, Kennedy moved first to London, and, then, to Edinburgh, where in the 1980s she worked as a librarian at the University of Edinburgh. She engaged in much charitable work and was the inspiration behind the foundation of the Rock Trust, a charity aimed at helping homeless people.

Wikipedia hosts a page on Kennedy.

This is it for the first semester, but I look forward to many more fascinating discoveries in the new year.

From the Papers of Marjorie Rackstraw, photographer unknown (Coll-705)

 

“Let the Battle Commence:” The Pioneering Life of Helen Millar Lowe

Born in Duns on 10th December 1897, Helen M. Lowe left Berwickshire High School at the age of 16 to pursue a career beyond traditional educational settings. Following her failure to graduate, she decided to move to England and soon joined the offices of the Post Office Savings Bank in London, where she worked as a clerk throughout the First World War. This was to be only the first of a series of rebellious acts that made Helen, in many ways, a revolutionary woman for her time.

Papers of Helen Millar Lowe (Coll-1247)

Upon the coming into force of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, Helen decided to return to Scotland to begin an apprenticeship with chartered accountants Chiene and Tait, a post that she held for nine years. In 1926, after long and extensive training and supplementary classes at The University of Edinburgh, Helen became the third woman in Edinburgh to officially enter the register of Chartered Accountants. As ‘a would-be pioneer in one of the most conservative professions,’ however, Helen did not content herself with her achievements, and two years after her qualification as a Chartered Accountant, she left Chiene and Tait to open her own business in Queen Street, Edinburgh, the first female Chartered Accountant to do so within the city.

Helen’s incredible tenacity and business acumen, led her to set up an extremely successful business. At her death on 6th November 1997, Helen left a £7m fortune built on a portfolio of stocks and shares and several properties around Edinburgh.

Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library

Yet, Helen is remembered for more than just business success. A keen participant in the life of her community, Helen invested much of her time in charitable work, particularly in the service of women and the elderly. As honorary treasurer and secretary of many charitable bodies, Helen dedicated her life to the well-being of those within and without her social circle, advocating for several important causes on a local level.

Her most notable effort is, without a doubt, her campaign in support of the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women and Children and the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital. Originally conceived as ‘Institutions that are staffed by legally qualified medical women and in particular which afford to women and children the opportunity of consulting and being treated by medical women,’ the two hospitals offered critical and much-needed services to the community they served.  Therefore, when in 1957 the South-Eastern Regional Hospital Board made the decision to advertise a vacancy for Consulting Physicians at the hospitals as open to both men and women, protests ensued. Helen quickly joined forces with other protesters, organising a committee to mount a strategic campaign. In April 1957, a mass meeting took place in the Usher Hall to raise awareness of the issue:

It was a splendid meeting. There were queues at each door an hour before the time, and the body of the Hall, the Main Gallery, and a large part of the Organ Gallery were filled to capacity.

Courtesy of Lothian Health Services Archive, Edinburgh University Library

Following the success of the meeting, which the Weekly Scotsman described as ‘one of the most remarkable demonstrations yet made against State management in this country,’ several initiatives were encouraged for the promotion of the campaign. When the Board remained firm in their decision, however, Helen begun seeing the necessity of taking matters further:

The gloves are off now, and we are really rolling our sleeves and saying “Let the battle commence.”

After pleads to the Secretary of State went unheard, Helen and ten more prominent local women took the issue to the Court of Session. The case was heard in October 1957, and, a few weeks later, a judgement in favour of the campaigners was finally pronounced. In May 1958, a female physician was finally appointed to the post. The status of the hospitals had been preserved.

Shortly after the successful end of the campaign, members of staff at the Bruntsfield Hospital for Women and Children and the Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital wrote to Mrs. Lowe to thank her for her engagement with the campaign:

The whole conduct of the campaign with its successful outcome has filled us with admiration and we feel that a large part of its success was due to your ungrudging selfless work on our behalf. We owe you a debt that we can never repay.

Helen’s strenuous efforts in support of the campaign –testified in her extensive correspondence with various members of both the general public and governmental institutions— garnered not only the gratitude of those directly affected by her selflessness and determination, but the status of pioneering woman above and beyond her professional career. Helen’s words in response to those thanking her speak of her legacy:

It will be a pity if Scotsmen and women were to accept all the dictates of the bureaucrats. I think, however, that we still have amongst us far too many people of independent mind for that to happen.

As a woman of ‘independent mind,’ Helen did much to protect the vulnerable and ensure that injustices would not go unchallenged. In 1964, her active and passionate participation in charitable work was rewarded with an MBE as part of the New Year Honours.

Oh WOW! Women at Work in the 1980s

WOW promotional materials (SC-Acc-2018-0179)

Buried within the pages of one of the latest acquisitions at the Centre for Research Collections–one so recent, in fact, that its contents have yet to be detailed within the CRC catalogue–, a cut-out of a 1980s’ magazine states:

 ‘The trouble for most women who have spent years at home is that they lack the self-confidence to start again. And those few who have retained their self-esteem are so out of touch that they don’t know how to get going.’

This statement should come as no surprise, as even today women, who statistically perform a greater share of domestic and child-rearing tasks, are more likely than men to see their career development negatively affected by their commitment and devotion to family responsibilities. At the time our magazine article was published, however, the UK government, in partnership with the Manpower Services Commission and the University of Edinburgh, begun to implement a unique solution to the issue: the WOW programme. WOW (Wider Opportunities for Women) courses started being offered within the Extra-Mural Department at the University of Edinburgh in 1980, making the university possibly the sole institution to receive Manpower Services Commission funding for such a programme. Initially run by the Training Services Division of the Manpower Services Commission, the WOW programme was aimed at women planning to return to work –most often after pregnancy and years of domestic ‘employment’–, and sought to provide training opportunities as well as guidance over how to approach the job market, what type of opportunities might be available, and what obstacles may be encountered.

WOW promotional materials (SC-Acc-2018-0179)

As the leaflets and fliers stored within the collections suggest, the Edinburgh WOW programme was open to all women who had never had a job or who had not worked for at least two years. In addition, women of at least 19 years of age who had left full-time education a minimum of two years prior to the start of the programme were also encouraged to place an application, making the course a highly inclusive and diverse environment.

Most importantly, the course was mainly aimed at women who might feel insecure or unsure with regards to their career paths. In a short statement within the same magazine cut-out, then organiser of the Edinburgh WOW course –and WOW alumna—Joanna Highton stresses the importance of helping women understand their potential and talents:

‘When we interview women, we deliberately choose those who have not made up their minds about what they want to do. They are the ones who need it most.’

Those accepted on a WOW course were offered a tax-free weekly allowance dependent on their family circumstances, as well as travel reimbursement and lunch refreshments throughout the course. They were encouraged to take part in different work experience programmes and to consult experts in their chosen fields, and appointments were made for them to discuss their plans ‘with the expert staff of the Occupational Guidance Unit.’

WOW promotional materials (SC-Acc-2018-0179)

 ‘The WOW course helps women focus on the job they want, and gives them a realistic idea of just how to get it.’

CV guidance and interview preparation were integral components of the WOW programme, so as to fullfil the three fundamental aims of the course:

  1. To give information;
  2. To help make plans;
  3. To help gain confidence.

In 1989, with the transformation of the Extra-Mural Department into the Centre for Continuing Education, the WOW programme at The University of Edinburgh underwent a re-branding that lead to the creation of the new Returning to Work or Study course, ‘a two-term one-morning-a-week’ course ‘open to parents of either sex who have been tied to domestic responsibilities for a number of years.’ The newly formulated programme had the goal of providing ‘participants with an opportunity to reassess their potential and reconsider their career goals.’ Although statistics relating to the number of male vs female students within the new course are currently not available, general social tendencies seem to suggest that enrollment to the Returning to Work or Study programme  would have remained primarily, if not uniquely, female.

Revolutionary in its approach to solving a problem affecting countless women, the WOW course remains inspirational today as an initiative promoting inclusion in the workplace, supporting families, and encouraging women to pursue satisfying and meaningful careers.

From Bletchley with Love: Irene J. Young

Irene J. Young (Coll-1657), 1944, photographer unknown.

Irene J. Young, affectionately known by friends and family as ‘Mouse,’ was born in Edinburgh on 16th February 1919. She was educated at Esdaile (Ministers’ Daughters’ College) before joining The University of Edinburgh in 1937 to pursue an M. A. (Hons) degree in English Language and Literature.

Irene’s engagement in the war effort dates back to her time as a student in Edinburgh, where, in the summer of 1941, she begun work as a volunteer with ‘the Scheme for Provision of Shelter for Persons rendered Homeless as a result of enemy action.’ A scrapbook of Irene’s time at The University of Edinburgh, stored within the Centre for Research Collections, depicts Irene’s commitment to play a part in the home front resistance as well as her emotional involvement in the welfare of troops deployed both at home and abroad.

After her graduation in July 1942, Irene was recommended by members of the University for employment with the Foreign Office, work that eventually led her to take up a post at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. Of her time at Bletchley, Irene wrote:

 “I, among many others, was a mere adjutant –a cog in the great enterprise. We did the routine work which was, nevertheless, collectively essential.”

The ‘collectively essential’ work performed by Irene at the GC&CS was part of a top-secret operation, code-named Ultra, to obtain –through decryption— vitally important intelligence from enemy radio and teleprinter communications. Thanks to the strenuous works of ‘cogs’ like Irene, the end of the war in Europe is said to have been advanced by two years (1), potentially sparing countless lives.

Irene J. Young and Leslie George Cairns (Coll-1657), 1944, photographer unknown.

On 29th December 1943, after a long and complex engagement, Irene married fellow Edinburgh University graduate Lieut. Leslie George Cairns, R. A. (Ayrshire Yeomanry), seconded Parachute Regiment, with a small ceremony in St. Cuthbert’s Memorial Chapel in Edinburgh. The couple’s happy ending, however, was destined to be short-lived, as barely six months after the wedding Lieut. Cairns went missing during a sabotaging expedition in France, and was later declared dead in action. The mysterious circumstances of Leslie’s death prompted Irene to embark, soon after the end of the war, on a frustrating journey to France in an attempt to uncover the truth of her husband’s final mission. Following a series of unsuccessful inquiries, Irene begun making plans to permanently leave Britain, eventually moving to South Africa in 1947.

Abroad, Irene worked as a bookseller and a lecturer. During her time in South Africa, she made the acquaintance of Reginald Brown, a British war veteran “who was extremely sensitive to [her] experience, and who, himself, had had a tough war.” The shared memories of war times encouraged a bond between Irene and Reginald which, soon, resulted in marriage. Not long after becoming husband and wife, the couple returned to Edinburgh, where Reginald found employment as an accountant, while Irene worked first as a freelance editor and tutor, before joining a department of Edinburgh University Library, where she remained for ten years.

Then, in 1982, “shortly after the Falklands War,” Reginald “died suddenly and unexpectedly”:

“I was desolate. Not for nothing is the word for ‘widow’ derived from the French ‘VIDE’.”

Out of Irene’s grief for the loss of her second husband, came the idea for a new project: a memoir detailing Irene’s memories of the war, her work at Bletchley Park, and her first love. In 1988, having worked on her autobiography for the best part of six years and with the 50th anniversary of the beginning of WWII fast approaching, Irene started accosting publishers. The path to publication proved not without obstacles, with some editors commenting, “Oh no! Not another war memoir!”, and others doubting the “viability” of the project on the basis that “you are not a household name.”

Irene J. Young (Coll-1657), 1939, photographer unknown.

Yet, Irene persevered in her attempts, and in April 1989 she was finally able to announce to her friends Ronald and Dorothy:

“I have a big surprise for you –and for myself! The book I started writing some time ago –to fill the big void created by Reg’s death—is to be published early next year!”

Enigma Variations was published in May 1990, two years after Irene’s first letter to her publisher, Bill Campbell. Irene’s papers speak of her delight at being able to share the “3 enigmas in my life then”: work at Bletchley Park, a love story complicated by the need for constant secrecy, and “the enigma of Leslie’s fate.” By immortalising her experiences, Irene was able to give voice to a generation of young people whose passions and fears had been silenced by years of unanswered questions and strict confidentiality:

“The technical complexities of the Enigma machine, and the breaking of the code have been brilliantly explained by Ronald Lewin, Peter Calvocoressi and others. I am in no way competent to do this.

[…]

My book has a much humbler purpose. I wanted to set on record the grim but hilarious social conditions endured by the rank and file at BP [Bletchley Park]. […] I happen to think this a piece of social history that shouldn’t be lost, and that any interesting individual experience in historic times is worthy of being recorded.”

Although Irene might only have been ‘a cog in the great enterprise’ of public History, her personal history, the history of a woman of incredible vitality and character who relentlessly fought for what she believed to be right, portrays the struggles, the sufferings, and the victories of an entire generation. Irene’s memoir and papers shed light on the experience of the war not as a great national event, but as the daily life of common men and women whose losses, sacrifices and efforts served as the backbone for an entire country. As such, her painstaking recording remains an invaluable gift to future generations.

Irene J. Young (Coll-1657), 1944, photographer unknown.

(1) Kahn, David (1997), The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (2nd Revised ed.), New York: Simon & Schuster.