Engineer of the Week No.77: Marjem or Marynia Chatterton (nee Znamirowska/Znamerovschi) BSc, FIStructE. (September 1916 – March 2010)
103 years since the month of her birth in Poland we remember structural engineer Marjem Chatterton, who was a real pioneer in the then newly-emerging nations of Israel and Zimbabwe, as well as an early female engineer in her field.
Marjem Chatterton was the first female fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers and designer of many of Zimbabwe’s first skyscrapers, including that nation’s national bank building.
Born Marjem or Marynia Znamirowska in Warsaw, Poland, in September 1916, she grew up in a large Orthodox Jewish family, where girls’ education was considered important. She had planned to return to Poland to study chemical engineering at the University of Warsaw, but in 1934 it was clear that the situation for Poland’s Jews was worsening, so she enrolled at the Hebrew Technical Institute in Haifa. Known as the ‘Technion’, one of her aunts – Rachel Shalon, the first female engineer in the country – was a faculty assistant there. Photos of Marjem in class show that she was far from being the only woman studying engineering at the Technion.
Graduating in civil engineering in 1939, with the first distinction in engineering awarded by the Technion, Znamirowska took a job that had been offered to her by a faculty member, Josef Edelman, who ran the Technical Office of the Collective Settlements Association, building some of the country’s largest kibbutzim as well as factories and bridges. She also assisted with paramilitary roles during the war. Although her own parents escaped from the Nazis, most of the rest of the family were lost in the Holocaust.
In 1947 the war, Marjem and her British husband, Frank Chatterton, emigrated with their children to Southern Rhodesia, where she found a job as a reinforced concrete designer within 2 days of arriving in the country. Her experience with reinforced concrete structures in Palestine was particularly useful, as at that time it was nearly impossible to get hold of heavy steel sections locally. Southern Rhodesia was socially very conservative and everyone was taken aback to be working with a femal engineer but, once her competence became evident, her ‘oddity’ meant she was soon very well-known. Specialising in multi-storey structures, Initially she worked for Lysaght and Company but in 1969 she established her own consulting firm, M. Chatterton and Partners. As well as prestigious urban skyscrapers, she also designed many industrial facilities for the cotton, fertiliser, and sugar industries.
In 1976, the worsening political situation in Zimbabwe led to her moving to Leeds University as a lecturer, and also became involved in the university’s campaign to encourage girls into engineering, giving careers talks in girls’ schools. In 1984 she returned to consultancy in Zimbabwe, also teaching at the national university. Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 meant that sanctions were lifted and investment poured in and she gained a lot of work and her buildings still define the skyline of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, with her last major project – the 26-storey Reserve Bank – being the tallest office building in the country. By 1999, although Marjem was still working (at the age of 83), the political situation was again worsening and she decided to take retirement and return to the UK.