On the shoulders of giants—the legacy of Queen’s women

‘Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult’

Queen’s women leave lasting impact as students and faculty.

In STEM fields at Queen’s, women have long been trailblazers.

Whether it’s arguing with Albert Einstein, paving the way for more women at Queen’s, or becoming an important figure in local and national politics and welfare, here are three iconic women who created change.

Allie Vibert Douglas (1894-1988)

Allie Vibert Douglas, astronomer, and dean of women at Queen’s, was born in Montreal in 1894.

Douglas began her journey at McGill but paused her studies in 1916 to work at the War Office in London as a statistician during World War I. She was recognized for her work in 1918 when she was made a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Following the war, Douglas returned to McGill, earning her BA in mathematics and physics in 1920 and her MSc in physics in 1921.

After graduating, she received a scholarship to attend Cambridge University where she intended to study the radioactive side of physics under renowned physicist Ernest Rutherford. However, Douglas began to develop a curiosity for astrophysics.

“Little by little, I realized my physics was just the background I needed, particularly spectroscopy for astrophysics. I just got deeper and deeper and deeper into it. There’s been a lifelong interest,” Douglas said in an interview from the Dean of Women oral history project held at the Queen’s archives.

Douglas continued her studies under Sir Arthur Eddington, a prominent astrophysicist at Cambridge University. After a few years, Douglas returned to McGill where she completed her doctorate in astronomy in 1926 and remained a lecturer until 1939.

Allie Vibert Douglas, 1894-1988. Supplied by Queen’s Archives

In 1939, Douglas came to Queen’s as both the Dean of Women—a position she held until 1959—and a professor in the physics department.

“When I came to Queen’s, I was rather astounded to find that women were really hardly regarded as full members of the university,” Douglas said in the interview.

Throughout her time at Queen’s, Douglas fought for women’s place within the university. She was vocal about reopening medical school admissions to women and ensuring rules and policies applied to men and women equally.

Douglas pioneered the teaching of astrophysics at Queen’s spearheading the construction of the Ellis Hall observatory. She had a passion for knowledge and thought scientists had a duty to educate the public, something Albert Einstein disagreed with her on at Princeton University in 1954. Einstein believed scientific theories shouldn’t be popularized or made understandable to lay people.

Douglas was the first Canadian president of the International Federation of University Women and the first woman to be president of the Royal Canadian Astronomical Society.

After she passed away in 1988, Asteroid 3269 was renamed Vibert-Douglas in her honour, as well as a crater on Venus in 2003.

Beatrice Worsley (1922-1972)

Beatrice Worsley, recognized as the first woman to make significant contributions to the field of computer science in Canada, was responsible for the founding of the Queen’s Computing Centre.

Mexican born, Worsley was born in 1922. She obtained a BA from the University of Toronto (U of T) in 1944, where she specialized in applied mathematics, and graduated with first class honours in both mathematics and physics.

During World War II, Worsley served with the Canadian Navy where she was part of a team tasked with designing computer-equipped torpedoes.

She then went on to obtain a Master of Science degree in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1947—which is where she was exposed to real computers for the first time. The following year, Worsley went to the University of Cambridge for two years where she began work on her PhD in mathematical physics.

Beatrice Worsley, 1922-1972. Supplied by Alva Worsley

In 1951, Worsley returned to Canada and was hired by U of T as a staff mathematician at the Computation Centre. She completed her PhD in 1952—which is believed to be the first dissertation involving modern computers—establishing herself as one of the most computer-literate women in the world.

Worsley left to work at Queen’s in 1965, giving up the title of associate professor at U of T for computing advisor at Queen’s. When she arrived, the university had one outdated computer housed in the civil engineering department. Despite this, Worsley was one of three people who helped launch a computer centre at the university, in addition to teaching and administrative duties.

Queen’s launched the department of computing and information science, to which Worsley received cross-appointment and developed both graduate and undergraduate curricula.

Throughout her career, Worsley wrote dozens of articles and technical papers relating to her work, leaving a lasting impact on the field of computer science.

In 1972, Worsley died of a heart attack while on sabbatical. She was 50 years old.

Charlotte Whitton (1896-1975)

Charlotte Whitton, a Queen’s University alumna, was born in 1896 in Renfrew, Ontario. She came to Queen’s during World War I.

Whitton excelled during her time at Queen’s, both in her academics, extracurriculars, and as an athlete. She graduated with her MA in 1917, receiving Queen’s medals in History and English, while playing on the field hockey, basketball, and ice hockey teams. Whitton was the first woman to be elected to an executive position within the AMS, and the first woman Editor in Chief of The Journal.

Whitton went on to become the founding director of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare. She worked for the Council for almost 20 years, fighting to improve standards for juvenile immigrants and neglected and dependent children. At this time, Whitton also acted as a federal unemployment relief policy advisor during the Great Depression.

In 1951, Whitton became mayor of Ottawa, making her the first woman mayor of a major Canadian city. She held this position until 1956, and again from 1960-64. During her time as mayor, Whitton worked to balance the city’s finances, had several affordable housing units constructed, and transformed an old hospital into a seniors complex.

Charlotte Whitton, 1896-1975. Supplied by Queen’s Archives

Whitton remained connected to Queen’s as an active member of the Alumnae Association and sat on the Board of Trustees from 1928-40. In 1941, Queen’s awarded Whitton an honorary doctorate degree.

Whitton was known to frequently say: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Whitton became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 and died of a heart attack eight years later.

Despite her fame and successes, Whitton’s career didn’t come without controversy. Many said she was racist and antisemitic, displaying prejudice against anyone not of British descent.


History, Politics, Queen’s Archives, STEM, women

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