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Ruth Pirret

First Woman To Graduate BSc
Born 24 July 1874, Glasgow, Scotland.
Died 19 June 1939.

A pioneering nuclear chemist whose work with Frederick Soddy shed new light on the disintegration theory of radioactivity.

Connection to the University of Glasgow: GU Degree: BSc, 1898;

Discover more school teachers on the University of Glasgow Story website


The following achievement is associated with Ruth Pirret:

Discovery of Isotopes
The value and use of isotopes in research and their importance in technology and applications to society today would have astounded Soddy.


Ruth Pirret (1874-1939) was the first woman to graduate BSc from the University, in 1898. Although her work was principally in chemistry, she can be considered to be included amongst the early women working in engineering due to her important contribution to the understanding of corrosion in marine boilers.

Ruth was born in Kelvinside, Glasgow’s prosperous West End, while her father was minister at the United Free Church in Garnethill. The penultimate child in a large family, there must nevertheless have been sufficient resources to ensure most of them got excellent educations, since two of her older sisters set up their own nursery school and her younger sister, Mary, became a medical doctor, in addition to Ruth’s own university education.

Ruth was among the first women to matriculate at the University in 1892. She won eight prizes as a student, including Advanced Practical Physiology, and took honours courses in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physiology (this in the men’s advanced classes). She graduated BSc in Pure Science on 12 April 1898.

Ruth’s degree initially took her into teaching, then one of the few paid careers open to female graduates. In 1900-01 she was science mistress at Greenock High School and she is then thought to have taught in various other schools, possibly in Kilmacolm, Newcastle and Arbroath, before returning to the University of Glasgow in 1909 to undertake postgraduate research with Frederick Soddy. She was the second woman (after Anne Louise McIlroy in 1908) to officially register as a research student at the University. Ruth and Soddy's work was developing the disintegration theory of radioactivity and was published in two co-authored papers (in 1910 and 1911) on “The ratio between uranium and radium in minerals", which led to Soddy becoming an FRS and getting a professorship at the University of Aberdeen in 1914.

During the First World War Ruth became a Vice-Warden of Ashburne House Hall, a residence for female students in Manchester. Just before the end of the war she left that position and returned to Glasgow.

It is not clear at what point she moved from radioactivity work to corrosion but in 1920 she was co-author of the Fifth Report to the Corrosion Research Committee, with Dr. GD Bengough and R. May. In the same year she was elected a full member of the Institute of Metals. The work may have been done at the National Physical Laboratory initially but, as she continued to collaborate with Bengough until at least 1928, she was later working for him at the Royal School of Mines’ Metallurgical Laboratories in Imperial College, London. In 1924 their work was published in book form as “Causes of rapid corrosion of condenser tubes”. In 1928 she was thanked for her work which contributed to some of the experimental results published by Bengough in “The Theory of Metallic Corrosion the Light of Quantitative Measurements”, but that seems to be the last definitive mention of her work on this topic. Also in the same year she gained a patent for “A new or improved device for protecting the flames of spirit stoves and the like”, which suggests she had a taste for picnicking!

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she lived in Kensington with her sister Mary. Ruth Pirret died in June 1939.