Engineer of the week No.90: Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan (Mrs Fleming) (1899-1985) BSc, AMICE
Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan, the first woman in Britain to gain qualification as a civil engineer, was born at Langholm, Dumfriesshire where her father, the Reverend James Donaldson Buchanan, was a clergyman. Perhaps because her upbringing was surrounded by the bridges and other local works of the great engineer Thomas Telford, Dorothy Buchanan’s earliest ambitions were to become a civil engineer. She was edducated at Langholm Academy, the Ministers’ Daughters College and Edinburgh University, she gained a BSc in Engineering in 1923. She studied under the Nobel Laureate Professor Barkla, but was delayed in graduating by illness. Another tutor, Professor Beare, recommended her to contractors, S. Pearson & Sons, but they would not take her until she had some experience. Fortunately, at just that time, (Sir) Ralph Freeman was recruiting staff for his work as consultant to Dorman Long’s on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He appointed her to the design office at £4 a week- the same as the “boys”. She worked for a while “running out weights of members, panels, girders etc” but then sought work on the drawing office, to work on the southern approach spans to the bridge.
Having gained the necessary experience, she was taken on by Pearsons in 1926 and worked on site at the Belfast Waterworks scheme in the Mourne Valley, where a reservoir was being built. This scheme ran into geological problems and the novel technique of using compressed air to dewater silty strata was used, giving Buchanan very interesting experience. Site work was apparently not a problem, with workers being content to see her as an engineer.
She returned to Dorman Long’s drawing office to work on the George V bridge in Newcastle and the Lambeth Bridge in London as well as the Dessouk and Khartoum bridges in Sudan.
In 1930 she left to get married (m. Fleming), feeling that to do both family and professional roles well would not be possible at the same time.
Dorothy was an active member of the Women’s Engineering Society, to which she gave a paper on the designs of some of ‘her’ bridges, which was published in The Woman Engineer in 1929. She successfully sat the exams in 1927 to become the Institution of Civil Engineers’ first female chartered engineer (then known as associate membership), which she regarded as a highlight of her life. In later years she took up rock climbing and painting and she died in 1985. The Institution of Civil Engineers now has a room named in her honour.