Meet Maria Dawson, first graduate of the University of Wales

Archives Hub feature for January 2022

Our institutional archives, 144 metres of which are now catalogued on Archives Hub, hold the key to countless stories of student achievements, past and present. One of our most noteworthy alumni is botanist Maria Dawson, the recipient of the University of Wales’ first awarded degree, a Bachelor of Science, in 1896.

Dawson also jointly holds the title of the first Doctor of Science of the University of Wales. She was granted a prestigious scientific scholarship which funded her pioneering research into agricultural fertilisers.

Maria Dawson

Degree-awarding powers in Wales

In October 1892, Dawson was admitted to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (the predecessor to Cardiff University) to study mathematics, chemistry, zoology and botany.

At that time, the College did not have degree-awarding powers, and students were prepared for University of London examinations. However, in 1893, whilst Dawson was a student, the history of Welsh education was altered irrevocably with the establishment of the University of Wales. The University Colleges in Cardiff, Bangor and Aberystwyth were its constituent institutions.

Academic excellence

Dawson was a high achiever from the outset: she won an exhibition (a bursary) at the College’s entrance examinations, which covered her matriculation and lecture fees, and another at the end of her first year.

She excelled in her scientific studies, winning prizes for her performance in all four of her subjects following her second year.

Chemistry Lab

From Botany modules to researching root nodules

After graduating with her B.Sc., Dawson was awarded a £150 research scholarship by Her Majesty’s Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Her pioneering research, undertaken at the Cambridge Botanical Laboratories, investigated how the addition of nitrogen and nitrates to soil, a new practice at that time, affected crop yields.

In her research paper, ‘“Nitragin” and the nodules of leguminous plants’ published by Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, she concludes that adding nitrogen “to soils rich in nitrates” is inadvisable. Adding “a supply of it to soil poor in nitrates results in an increased yield”, however the best results are obtained when “nitrates [are] added to the soil”.

Aberdare Hall

Dawson may not have enrolled at the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire at all if it were not for the dedicated all-female hall of residence the College offered. Her family lived in London, too far to return home each day, and it was not considered respectable for a young, unmarried woman to live in lodgings unchaperoned.

Aberdare Hall, a Grade II-listed Gothic revival residence founded in 1885, was one of the first higher education halls for women to be founded in the UK, and remains an all-female residence and community to this day.

Aberdare Hall

Doff thy caps: the first degree ceremony of the University of Wales

The first degree ceremony of the University of Wales took place in Cardiff at Park Hall, a large concert hall, on 22 October 1897.

The magazine of the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, a student publication, reported on this auspicious occasion:

“The first to be presented was Miss Maria Dawson, for the degree of B.Sc., and her appearance was the signal for a great outburst of enthusiasm among the audience. The Deputy-Chancellor… gave her the diploma…, and with a… bow, she retired amid deafening cheers.”

College Magazine

Having our collections listed on Archives Hub makes them visible to a worldwide audience via Google. Since migrating our catalogues, we’ve received enquiries from as far afield as Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Sydney. Our collections hold a multitude of stories as inspirational as Maria Dawson’s, and thanks to the reach of Archives Hub, they can be discovered, remembered, and celebrated. We’re proud of our long history of supporting women’s research in science, technology, and medicine – you can find more stories of women innovating today here: Women in STEM at Cardiff University.

Alison Harvey, Archivist
Special Collections and Archives
Cardiff University / Prifysgol Caerdydd

Related

Records of the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire and University College Cardiff, 1882-1988


Maria Dawson, first graduate of the University of Wales, 1897-1905 (description of photograph, part of the Cardiff University Photographic Archive collection, 1883-2001)

Browse all Cardiff University Archives / Prifysgol Caerdydd collections on the Archives Hub

All images copyright Cardiff University Archives / Prifysgol Caerdydd. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

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