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Interview of Dorothy Heyworth by Katherine Sopka on 1979 March 14, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4671
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Dorothy Heyworth was born in England in 1901, the youngest of three children in family of modest means. Won scholarship to attend high school and The University of Manchester where she studied with W.L. Bragg. Came to U.S. as instructor at Mt. Holyoke College 1925-29. She studied at University of Chicago 1929-31 and received Ph.D. in 1932 for work done under Zachariassen. Joined the faculty of Wellesley College in 1931 and remained there until retirement, serving 12 years as chairman. Little time for research but did some at MIT on cosmic rays in 1930s. She comments upon opportunities for women in physics, suitable education for future women scientists and the joys of teaching.
This is Katherine Sopka speaking. I am visiting today with Dorothy Heyworth, at her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Miss Heyworth, could we begin by asking you to tell me something of your family background, and your early education in England?
I had a father and a mother and a brother and a sister. I was the youngest of the three children. My brother was 2½ years older, my sister four years older. My mother taught before she was married, but she didn’t teach after she was married. My father had a small brush manufacturing business of his own. I went to a Baptist Church... I lived in a fairly small town, named Bacup. It was in Lancashire, England, about 20 miles from Manchester. I attended the public schools there, and then went to high school. Of course, in those days, you had to pay to go to high school. At least you did in England. And so, when I was in elementary school, grade school, my parents asked me if I wanted to go to high school. You see, I kind of played around quite a lot. I used to like to play. But I said, yes, I would like to go, and they said, “Well, you have to win a scholarship, then.” So I took some exams and won a scholarship. I was allowed to go to high school.
Was that very difficult? Were there few scholarships?
Not too many. But I decided, I had better work.
How old were you then, about 12 or 13?
Yes. And, since the college course was three years, high school was a year longer than in the U.S., so that we were rather like sophomores when we went to college.
Was your high school for both boys and girls?
Yes, it was coeducational, so was my elementary school. I was in coeducational classes all through my education. And I think that was a great help to me, when I got to the university. Because I wanted to prove something, and I had an excellent opportunity to do so.
You said you liked to play. What did you like to play doing?
Just play outdoors. Around where I lived, the other children were all boys, so I played with the boys, cricket and all kinds of games. That was my outside activity. But I liked to read. We all did in my family. It was a great joy, to read. And I recall asking “could I finish this chapter before I go to bed?” I had just started another chapter, you know. We had a public library in the town where I lived. I suppose in this day it would be considered pretty awful but it had all the old books, the old classics and other things people used to read in those days. We had books of our own at home too.
Did your brother and sister also go to the high school ahead of you?
My sister went to a different high school, because the high school I went to didn’t exist when she went. It was a new high school, nearer my home, but she had to go further to high school. And then she went to Manchester University. She majored in chemistry. She was very bright. ..as was my brother. She got her Master’s degree, and taught for a while. Then she married...
Did you have any high school teachers or other people who may have influenced you to go into science?
Well, my physics teacher. I don’t think he was particularly good, actually. He’d been in the Navy during the war, and it took him a long time to adjust to civilization. When he came back. But even so, I rather liked him, and he discovered that I was interested in physics. My school had a few people who had gone to the university to do chemistry. The chemistry master was quite good and was also the headmaster. Of course, a much smaller fraction of the students went to the university than do here. You had to really want to go. You had to be a student, to go. My sister, of course, as I said, was in chemistry — but I rather liked physics, and of course, the physics master was awfully keen to have me go and do physics, because there had never been a person from that high school go into physics. It was a new school. But I liked some of my other teachers. I realized more and more afterwards that I had every right to appreciate them because they were very very good. I had a very good history teacher, for example.
Did you have languages in high school?
We had French. That was a time when German was a no-no because of World War I.
— Which years were you in high school?
Well, it must have been all through the war. Yes, during the war, so we didn’t have German in school that was too bad because I had to learn it by myself as a prerequisite for the PhD. I don’t know any German, but I passed the exam.
Then you were ready to go on to a University?
Yes, of course, there was the question of money. I had to try to win a scholarship, to be able to go. So I sat for all the exams I could take — Lancashire County gave a few scholarships for any university that you wanted to go to, and the University of Manchester itself had exams you could sit for. Of course you would go to the University of Manchester if you won any of those. Some were for men and women both, some were for women only and some for men only. I took as many exams as I could. And well, I managed to get some money that way.
Were you able to live at the University of Manchester?
Yes. I lived in Ashburn Hall which still exists. That was quite a part of my general education. Things were different in some ways from what I’d known before, but I lived with them… We used to have a little play, every Saturday evening. Each year one class in turn gave the play. So every three weeks it was your turn, and that was fun. We wrote them ourselves, and produced the whole thing. It was very good training for teaching, because in teaching, you have to act the part, to get it across to the students.
Were there other girls majoring in physics?
Well, when I went down to register, a few days before college opened, I met the professor of physics, W.L. Bragg and said — I wanted to go into honors physics. He’d never given a degree to a woman in honors physics. So he tried to persuade me to go into honors science. There was something called honors science, where you didn’t specialize as much in any one science, which was very good for teaching, as he pointed out. But I wanted honors physics. I can remember exactly what I said. I was scared stiff, of course, but I said, “I’d like to take a shot at it.” “Oh yes. Well, you have the qualifications.” He said, “If you ever find it too easy, or too difficult, you come and let me know.” So that’s how I got in. And, in honors physics, there were 26 men and four women, in my year. At the end of the first year, there were 13 men and one woman — because it could be awfully tough. It didn’t mean you were kicked out of the university. It meant, you went and got what they called an ordinary degree, not an honors degree. The honors course was special, in the subject.
Did you take more advanced courses also?
Yes, and you took more mathematics. After the first year, you had pretty much physics and mathematics. So, as I said a while ago, I was the only girl left. I think I worked harder than the other girls. I had to prove something, so I worked like a dog. And everybody was very nice to me after the first year, when they realized I was serious and perhaps was going to be able to do the work. They were extremely nice to me, the other men too. I never had the slightest difficulty that way.
Did you share in the laboratory work? Did you have a lab partner?
Yes. Whoever it happened to be didn’t seem to mind in the slightest, because I was getting a better grade than he was. I decided that if it was possible, I was going to get first class honors. So as I say, I worked like a dog, and that’s what gets a lot of things for you, to work like a dog. One of the men and I got firsts.
Oh, good for you.
Maybe I wouldn’t have done that if there’d been a lot of other women.
This would have been the early 1920’s, is that right?
Right. And then, when I was an undergraduate, Miss Wilson came over and met me. She talked to Professor Bragg about me saying, she thought my opportunities over here would be better than over there, and they talked. And then she talked to me, and I said, I’d never thought of it. I was going to stay another year anyhow to try to get my Master’s degree. And she said, “Well, think about it during that year, and then, let me know.” So I decided that I’d like to try it. When the time came, there was no opening here, but there was an opening at Mt. Holyoke, so it really was through Miss Wilson that I got the job at Mt. Holyoke.
She had taught at Mt. Holyoke earlier.
Yes, she knew Miss Laird, and so I went to Mt. Holyoke. But I was green as grass because the only teaching I had done was four days, once when Professor Bragg called me into his office and said, “The physics mistress at the high school across the street is ill, and they want a substitute, and you’re the substitute.” He didn’t ask me if I wanted to do it. He told me I was going to. I’d never taught in my life. I was scared stiff because I didn’t know what they were doing, and I had to try to continue with what was being done. Well, I tried. But that was my only experience, when I came to Mt. Holyoke. Of course, I made the mistake most young teachers make. Trying to teach too much. Not yet knowing where to stop. But then I stayed at Mt. Holyoke for four years, and one summer during that time, I went to Chicago, to the summer school and took some courses. Then I decided that I would like to go there and try and get my Doctor’s degree after I met the people at Chicago. A.H. Compton was there, and Dempster was there and Gale, also — some really good people. You can see why I became interested in crystal physics because W.L. Bragg was my professor. I had done my Master’s degree in crystal physics.
Experimental or theoretical?
Experimental. But then, you need the theory to try to figure out the structure. And then, at Chicago, I still did my thesis in structure of crystals.
With whom did you do your thesis at Chicago?
Zachariassen was his name. He was Scandinavian. I started with someone else who was a terror. They got rid of him.
How did you find the atmosphere at Chicago? Was it quite different from Manchester, in terms of the way people interacted?
Well, it was much less formal. That’s one thing. And of course, I was older. After all, when I went to Manchester, I was the one who was doing the growing. I’d come from a smallish place, and everything was new to me. I was just growing up, as I did my undergraduate work, you know, maturing. Whereas, when I went to Chicago, I was much more mature. I’d had four years teaching experience. I got a fellowship there, and of course you had to do something, for it. And so, I had to teach a lab in one of the courses. They had lectures apparently in that course for about three weeks first without a lab, and they had lots of different experiments going at the same time, so that was the first time the lab students saw me. The faculty had never before had a girl to be a lab instructor. I think they thought I was going to faint or something, because they all found time to walk down that hallway and look into the lab, to see if I was still erect and in one piece. I was thankful that I’d had the four years experience. That was something that helped, in the lab work. So I stayed there, until I’d done the experimental part of my thesis, and I’d done all my coursework. I hadn’t written my thesis. But I had no money left, and so I wrote Miss Laird and said, “I haven’t any money left. Do you suppose there might be anything in the second semester for me?” although I knew perfectly well, the college had made their arrangements for the whole year the spring before. She was very very kind. Somebody was glad to give up a course, because they had too much to do. Mt. Holyoke gave me a part time job for the second semester, and I wrote my thesis. I still had my oral examination to do. I came to Wellesley the following year and during midyears of my first year at Wellesley, I went back and took my orals.
Was your thesis published?
Yes. In the PHYSICAL REVIEW.
How did you make the change from Mt. Holyoke to Wellesley?
Well, that was rather sticky, because I was offered the same job at the same salary in both places. So I couldn’t say to Mt. Holyoke, “I’m going to Wellesley because they’ve offered me more money.” But of course Miss Wilson was there, and that was an attraction for me, and then, — Mt. Holyoke is rather isolated, you know. The nearest town is Springfield, and what is there in Springfield? I wanted to be near Boston, so I could go to the theatre and do things that I couldn’t there. But Miss Laird understood perfectly. But in those days, you stayed at the same rank a lot longer than you do now.
When you came to Wellesley were you still an instructor?
I was still an instructor. Then I became assistant professor, and then associate professor, then professor. Now, of course, they practically ask you when you’re interviewing… if they can be an associate professor…
Yes, with tenure. But when I came to Wellesley, I had 35 cents in the world.
You see? I’d run out of money. I lived in a dorm at first, not because I chose to, but because the physics department here told me that they’d had a meeting and decided that someone in the department should live in the dorm. And so, I was going to live in the dorm.
Did that mean that you had some responsibility for the undergraduates?
Well, at dinner, you sat at the head of a table of students, and you had a senior opposite who came and walked in to dinner with you. And then, different students would sit at the table, you know, any students. Then after about six weeks, you’d change your senior opposite to a different girl. So you had the responsibility, I suppose, of holding a proper conversation at the table.
Was it less expensive if you lived in the dormitory?
Well, you didn’t get anything for this, but living in the dorm was the least expensive way of living.
I see. So it was helpful to you.
Yes. I lived in a dorm for, I think, four years, and then I moved into a faculty place. Miss McDowell was chairman of the physics department. In those days, I think the chairman of the department was more the head of the department, than is now true. But we had many more department meetings than we do now. Some of them, I thought, just a pure waste of time. But we had to go. Now, kinds of courses I taught — I taught a variety of things. I taught elementary course and I taught a course in electricity, as it was called in those days, and I taught also a course in thermodynamics and ... statistical mechanics. What else did I do? Well, we had various students taking honors work, students on special projects. And, did I teach anything else…? It’s so long ago. I liked teaching best, but of course after a while, I became chairman of the department.
When was that?
Well, let’s see. I was chairman of the department for too long a time. Supposedly, now, you are chairman of the department for two terms, which means six years, and then someone else is supposed to take over that chore.
Did it used to be that the senior person in the department was chairman?
Well, yes. There’d be a few exceptions. After Miss McDowell retired, which is ages ago, let’s see, Miss Armstrong was chairman for a while. And then I was chairman. She left. She wasn’t of retiring age, she just left and went to Los Alamos to work.
Was it during the war years, World War II, when she went to Los Alamos?
It was after, I think, after the war, in the fifties. And then I was chairman, and I stayed chairman far too long, but I was the senior member of the department. Each person had a vote. When the six years was up, mine was the only “no” vote, see, so I got voted in again. I could see why, because I was older, and had been there longer, and I did a decent job when I was chairman. So I got stuck with it. But then you get a little time off from your teaching for your chairmanship. I expect it’s become a worse job than it was even when I was chairman, because now, it’s just almost impossible to be chairman. Things are due earlier than they used to be. You’ve got to do much more filling out of forms for this, that and the other thing than you used to have to do. You’ve got to send many more letters to this, that and the other committee than you used to do. It’s just become much more complicated. It was bad enough when I was chairman.
How about the student body that you’ve been associated with?
I like the students, in the main.
I’ve been impressed with the number of girls coming out of Wellesley, and with very good physics training.
Yes, we’ve had some awfully good people. In fact, you know, other places, where they’ve gone say for graduate work have said to us, “When are you going to send us some more students?” They got basic physics here — just a good meat and potatoes sort of thing, you know. And good lab work, and we were awfully generous with conferences. They could have a conference any convenient time, and we spent a lot of time individually with students who were having difficulty. We tried to — at least I did, and I’m sure the others did also — to make our lectures interesting, not just be dull, but give them some life, and have quite a few demonstrations. I remember once, a girl brought a boy who was at Brown to one of my lectures. She came up, and asked if she could, and I said yes. When it was over, she politely brought him up and introduced him. Fortunately it was a lecture where there were a lot of demonstrations more than, sometimes, by a good long shot. He said, “Oh, I’m taking physics at Brown, but we don’t have demonstrations like these. Oh,” he said, “it was wonderful.” I didn’t tell him that there were more than usual. Just let him believe that it was average. But I liked the students, and got along very well with them, in the main. There’s always the occasional one, you know — I tried to make it interesting for them. Not boring. And, as I said, you have to do a little acting, to get it across. We have lectures where they ask questions, not just straight lectures, so that we got into little discussions about this and that. Sometimes we’d get off the main track for a while, and talk about something they were asking about. After all, it makes it more interesting for them, and brings up some points that you might not have thought of yourself, and helps to make them understand the basic things involved. So they do get a good basic knowledge of physics, from which they can build. Now, my own research — after I came here: I did do some research for a while, with a man at MIT. We did some work in cosmic rays, and I would go one day a week to MIT. Sometimes he’d come out here for a day.
Do you remember his name?
Yes. One of my best friends — Ralph Decker Bennett, a great man. He’s in California now. Retired, you know.
Cosmic Rays was the big topic, in the thirties.
Yes. Yes. I met first him in Chicago. He was on the faculty there when I was as a graduate student. We’ve kept in touch ever since. He is a great person. Did lots of work during the war, was on many committees and so forth. But, you know, it’s very difficult to do research when you have a full time job.
Oh, I know well.
— We published a paper together, but then it just got too difficult. — My first consideration was the teaching, to do as good a job as I could on the teaching, and to give as much time as was needed, to the students. But I did do that much research. And it was a different field, from the one I’d done for my doctorate, so it gave me some experience in a new field.
There don’t seem to be many more women going into physics now than years ago. Would you comment on that?
No, there aren’t. And yet, there are more possibilities for them, by a long shot, than there were in my day. Then teaching was about the only thing. Well, I was practically offered a job in one of the big hospitals in England, to be in charge of all their X—ray equipment. But that wasn’t something I was particularly interested in doing, so — teaching really was the thing. And Miss Wilson thought that my opportunities in teaching here would be better than in England, because there were so few places there where you could apply for a job. I did apply for a job at Bedford College, which is part of the University of London, and they wrote to me very encouragingly but said, the only thing that they hesitated about was the fact that I had no teaching experience.
Apparently the existence of women’s colleges provided many of the teaching opportunities, here in the United States. Did you know of any women who taught at coeducational institutions at the time you were getting established?
In England, you mean?
In either England or the United States.
Well, when I was an undergraduate, there were no women teachers in physics there. I don’t know whether they would even have been considered. Because, they’d be considered here before they would be considered in England, at that time, because things were established in England. It was hard to break the establishment. You know.
When you came to the United States, did you go to the Physical Society meetings?
When you were in Chicago, they used to have some of the meetings in Chicago, didn’t they?
Yes, and when I was at Holyoke I used to go to some of the meetings in New York. I remember once, they had a combined meeting in Montreal of the Canadian Physical Society with the American Physical Society. I went to that. And there again, speaking of women, the MONTREAL STAR, the newspaper sent a photographer and a woman interviewer who wanted to interview someone in the American Physical Society, a woman physicist. So they chose me to be the one interviewed. I felt sorry for that woman who was interviewing me, because she didn’t know any physics. She was just from the Women’s Page. And so, she looked at me, and the first thing she asked me… (whispering)… was “How tall are you?” I had a standard answer to that so I said I was about five feet. The next thing she said, was, “How much do you weigh?” And I looked at her quite calmly and said, “That’s one of the questions I don’t answer.” She didn’t know what to ask me. But I used to go to the meetings, and I used to go to the New England sectional meetings, because they’d have all those at places nearby, and you’d get to know quite a few people. But at the big meetings it’s got to the stage now where there are so many compartments in physics, and you’re lucky if you know anything about the next compartment. You go to these meetings, and there are hundreds of people milling around. The first few times, it’s exciting, and then it gets less exciting, I suppose probably because you’re getting older and, you know. But I don’t go now. I do get PHYSICS TODAY.
They have some good articles in that, for keeping one — Up to date.
Right. But I don’t go to any of the meetings. I just feel I get further and further behind, with every year that goes by, which is understandable.
Well, I was wondering about when you first were getting established here in America, did you go to the meetings?
Oh yes. Miss Laird told me about it and said I was supposed to go, and I did go. I enjoyed going. And learned. Then when I was at Mt. Holyoke, we used to have something called the Quadrilateral Physics Circle. It was Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Amherst — what was the fourth one? Another college around there. The physics people met once a month, in the different places. That was quite a good idea.
You mentioned some of the other women. You mentioned Alice Armstrong. Can you tell me something about her?
Yes. A good friend of mine. She lives in Santa Fe, now. She worked at Los Alamos until she retired, and she built a house in Santa Fe.
She got her PhD at Harvard.
She was one of the first women, if not the first one, to get one there.
We keep in touch. We call each other about every other week, and talk on the telephone.
Do you know, with whom she got her doctor’s degree? I’ve looked up in some of the reference books, and there seems to be some confusion, but I believe she got hers at Harvard with William Duane. I just wondered if you knew any others. There was another woman’s name that I came across, Dorothy Wrinch, at Smith College.
— oh yes, I don’t really know much about her, but I’ve met her.
— she was from England too, I believe.
Yes, and very good. I feel I ought to know more about her than I do. And — was she in crystallography?
I believe so. In general, the British women physicists tended to be in crystallography, didn’t they?
I suppose they were with the two Braggs. And when I was at Manchester, Sir Henry Myers was the crystallographer there. He gave a course in it, and we used to measure crystals, you know, and what not (whispering…) Bragg being my professor, it wasn’t surprising that I went into that field.
He came and visited here at Wellesley, Miss Wilson told me.
Was that before you came?
Yes. When I went to college, he was new at Manchester, a young man just getting used to the place, you know.
Of course, the Bragg name was well known in physics from his father.
Yes. And he’d already done some good work even at that young age.
Looking back over your whole career, what has given you the greatest satisfaction?
Teaching itself, but sometimes the other chores get in the way of teaching. I liked to teach. I remember something a student once said to me. She didn’t realize how it warmed the cockles of my heart. But she came to me and said, “Miss Heyworth, I’ve never been bored in any of your classes.”
That’s quite a compliment.
I thought, well, if she really knew what that meant to a teacher! Well, I tried to make it that way. You have your good days and your less good days, but I tried, I tried, and the teaching was the part I enjoyed most. Of course, that involves a lot of work behind that teaching, to get ready for it.
But the chairman work was rather burdensome. It has to be done and someone has to do it, but a lot of it is just problems, one problem after another. And some unpleasantness gets involved, if you should have to be firm about something.
Decisions are always difficult.
Yes. And then once I had to fire somebody, because he’d been altogether incompetent. I suppose, because it was a woman’s college, he couldn’t believe that I would fire him. He came to me and asked if he could have an appointment with me. I said yes, he came and said, “But you didn’t shout at me.” I said, “No, I didn’t. And I’m not going to now. But you’re fired.” He thought I couldn’t possibly have fired him because I didn’t yell at him. It takes all kinds.
Do you think that the girls feel more at home with a woman professor, or do you think it makes any difference?
Well, I think it depends on the girl, to a certain extent.
And probably on the woman professor, too.
Yes. I think that the girls here probably work better than if they were in a co-educational college, because they don’t have the distractions — well, they do have them, but they’re not during the class hours. And we have a lot of men faculty here.
I know that there’s increasing numbers.
Yes. And I think, perhaps, the first time they have one (woman professor?) they feel a little different, but I think they just get used to it. They just see a person, you know. It doesn’t make any difference.
When Wellesley, a few years ago, was deciding about coeducation, how did you feel about what they should do?
Well, I wasn’t too keen on it myself, although I’ve been completely coeducational, but, you know, they tried a little of it, and decided themselves that they didn’t want it. And I think that the students also were glad to go back to the old way.
Well, I was personally glad to see that one of the options for education was not shut off by all the schools going coeducational.
Of course. Here at Wellesley, they’re not cut off from men.
Oh no, I’m sure not.
You see, they’re near Harvard, MIT and all those places. It isn’t as though they were way off somewhere and never saw any men. They’ve got ample opportunity, and there’s lots of back and forth. You know, they have little dances here, and then at MIT, at Harvard and so forth, so it isn’t as though we were making nuns out of them. We are just teaching them.
I’ve been interested, especially in the sciences, where women have been traditionally under-represented, whether, for the present, a girl who is inclined to go into science, has a better chance of making it through, if she gets a start at a place like Wellesley where she can get a good basic training without the competition and distraction of the men.
Yes. I think that’s quite a point. We do emphasize the teaching end of things. We like to have people do research if they have time. Now, Miss Fleming, who is now the chairman of the department — Mrs. Guernsey was chairman after I retired, and now she’s just retired, less than a year ago. Now Miss Fleming is the chairman, but she has spent her time writing a book. It was just published a few months ago. You can imagine how long that took — years. But I’ll say this for her — she finished it. So many people begin to write a book and don’t finish it.
This looks quite good and quite up to date. Is it being used much?
Well, I don’t know how much — Brown uses it.
I wondered if it was used at Wellesley.
I don’t know. I forgot to ask Phyllis. She teaches some elementary courses, it may be used there.
Well, I thank you very much for meeting with me. I think we covered a broad range of topics.
— Well, I don’t know what I’ve said, really. There may be one or two little things that I left out.
Well there will be a chance to add them when the transcript gets edited.