Women’s History Month: Six of the Most Significant Women at St Cross

March is Women’s History Month, and we’re reflecting on six remarkable women who have been involved in the St Cross College community over the past 60 years.

Dr Ruth van Heyningen 

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Dr Ruth van Heyningen was one of the founding Fellows of St Cross when it was established in 1965, while her husband, Kit, served as the College’s first Master.  

Having had a long and successful academic career, focusing on how cataracts are formed, Dr Van Heyningen centred her attention on the College business, and she was influential in acquiring the College’s early artwork through the Treverton Trust.  

She remained a Fellow until 1979, and she maintained a close relationship with the College long after her fellowship ended. 

Dr Van Heyningen celebrated her 100th birthday in 2018, before passing away in 2019. Many connected to the St Cross community remember her fondly, and a meeting room named in her honour contains some of the most beautiful artwork in the College — a nod to her love of fine art.

Professor Dame Hermione Lee 

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Professor Dame Hermione Lee matriculated in 1968 for a DPhil in English, just three years after the College was founded, and she has since achieved national notoriety for her contributions to literature, literary criticism and the biography genre, having published notable works on the likes of Virginia Woolf and Philip Roth.  

In 2023, she was awarded a GBE, the highest Order of the British Empire honour, for services to English Literature. In particular, she was credited for her role in founding The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, which was described in the citation as “having a national and international reputation both as a significant interdisciplinary cultural presence, and as a unique hub of activities related to all kinds of life-writing, reaching out to people and communities beyond the University.” 

“As far as I can see, no academic working in the Humanities has received this Honour before, which is a source of great pride and excitement for me,” Professor Dame Lee said of the honour.

Professor Karen O’Brien

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Professor Karen O’Brien, who matriculated in 1986 for a DPhil in English, has published significant scholarly works on the British, American and French Enlightenments as well as on British literature between 1660 and 1820. In addition to her scholarly achievements, she has also served several in prestigious administrator posts in British academia.  

Having been a pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Birmingham, Vice Principle for Education at King’s College London, as well as Professor of English Literature and Head of the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford, Professor O’Brien has gone on to become the Vice-Chancellor and Warden of Durham University.

Professor Lorna Casselton 

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Professor Lorna Casselton specialised in fungal genetics and earned a reputation for her expertise in the sexual development of fungi, contributing to more than 100 publications on the topic. From 1993 to 2003, she was a Fellow at St Cross; during this time, she was appointed Professor of Fungal Genetics at the University of Oxford, and she became a member of the Royal Society’s Council.  

In 2012, Professor Casselton received a CBE for services to fungal genetics and international science throughout her career.  

In 2014, she passed away after a short illness. To this day, though, her legacy lives on at the College: there is an annual series of lectures named after her, and the Lorna Casselton scholarship is open to applicants studying for a DPhil research degree in any aspect of plant biology, covering the annual cost of the course fee as well as an annual stipend for living costs. 

Dr Julie Scott-Jackson 

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Dr Julie Scott-Jackson obtained her DPhil in Archaeology at St Cross College in 1997, then became a Research Fellow and established the PADMAC Unit in Oxford. In 2005, she was awarded a Fellowship at St Cross and has since encouraged and supported graduate students in the fields of geology, geoarchaeology and Palaeolithic archaeology.  

Dr Scott-Jackson has made a major contribution to Palaeolithic Geoarchaeology worldwide, proving the presence of early hominins in the UAE and Qatar, which has advanced models of ‘Out of Africa’ migrations. 

In communicating her work, she has engaged widespread interest and gained the support of prominent figures such as HE Sheikh Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar. She now does most of her field work in the remote deserts of Arabia, locating and identifying previously unknown sites and adding to understanding of why early hominins chose certain locations for different functions.

Dr Lanna Cheng 

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Dr Lanna Cheng is a pioneer in the study of marine insects, having become immersed in the field after studying Insect Ecology at the University of Oxford in the mid-1960s thanks to a Commonwealth Scholarship.  

In 1976, she edited the book Marine Insects, the first scientific guide to the topic. The previous year she had authored a book on an entirely different interest: a series of recipes based on Chinese dishes her mother used to make but simplified so they were simple enough to make as a student in Oxford.  

Dr Cheng is a long-term friend of St Cross and was responsible for establishing the College’s endowed scholarship fund, the Ralph A. Lewin Prize, named after her late husband, a marine microbiologist and Esperantist who was known as the ‘father of green algae genetics.’ 

Dr Cheng continues to be a leading mind in the marine insect field and has now contributed to more than 100 publications.  


Honourable mentions

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Reverend Dr Margaret Yee 

The Reverend Dr Margaret Yee is an Emeritus Fellow of St Cross; her major research work is concerned with principles of knowing: science, humanities and theology, with a particular emphasis on the history and philosophy of science. 

Dr Revd. Yee has held several notable positions, such as College Chaplin of Nuffield College and Chairman of Examiners for the Master of Studies in Science and Religion.  

Audrey Blackman

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Audrey Blackman was a sculptor and ceramist who became known for exhibits with the Society of Women Artists and at the Royal Academy in London. She had a longstanding association with St Cross, as a former Member of Common Room, and she even donated her house on Boars Hill and a collection of watercolours to the College before she passed away in 1990. 

Several of Blackman’s sculptures and pottery works are on display around the College, while a room is named in her memory, and she is also honoured by the Audrey Blackman Society, which comprises legacy pledgers to the College.

Caroline Miles 

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Caroline Miles was a Fellow of St Cross for six years in the 1980s. She was well known for her role as Chairman of Oxfordshire Health Authority. During this period, she supported and helped to obtain funding for teaching the University of Oxford’s medical students.  

She retired in 1992, but then founded and chaired the Ethox Foundation, a research centre that aims to improve ethical standards in healthcare, which she pledged most of her estate to before she passed away in 2006. The Caroline Miles Room, a recreational space for St Cross students, is named in her honour.