Engineer of the Week No. 65: Ruth Pirret BSc, MIM (24th July 1874-19th June 1939)
On her 145th birthday we remember metallurgist and corrosion specialist, Scotswoman Ruth Pirret.
Ruth Pirret was the first woman to graduate with a BSc in pure science from the University of Glasgow, in 1898, having been amongst the first women to be allowed to enter the university. 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. Having won various prizes and taken honours courses in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physiology, 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. Soddy’s previous research assistant had been Winifred Moller Beilby, but she retired after their marriage in 1908 and Ruth Pirret took her place as his assistant. Their 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 a professorship at the University of Aberdeen in 1914.During the First World War she became a Vice-Warden of Ashburne House Hall, a residence for female students in Manchester, where students remembered her for the morale-boosting activities she set up there.
It is not clear at what point she moved from radioactivity work to corrosion but in 1920 she was co-authorof 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.