Somerville, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, was founded in 1879 as a pioneering women’s hall, opening up an Oxford education to women regardless of denomination. Named for Mary Somerville, the Scottish science writer and polymath, the college is famous for its campaigning history and progressive ethos.
Somerville alumnae and Fellows have been active in campaigns for social reform and women’s rights, including the extension of suffrage in the UK.
Distinguished alumnae include Eleanor Rathbone, who became one of the first female members of parliament in the UK in 1929, while Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi became the first women to serve as prime ministers of their respective countries. Dorothy Hodgkin, a pioneer in the field of X-ray crystallography — using the technique to determine the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin — was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.
The college voted to admit men in 1994. Somerville retains its founding commitment to nurture potential from all sections of society and supports a range of initiatives to encourage applicants from backgrounds that are traditionally under-represented at the most selective universities.
Following the completion of the Catherine Hughes building in 2019, it is also one of a handful of Oxford colleges which is able to house all of its undergraduates on its main campus for the duration of their degree.
Somerville is home to the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, which focuses on research into the challenges and opportunities of sustainable development on the Indian subcontinent. The OICSD also supports a scholarship programme for talented Indian graduate students.
The college has over 669 students, 435 of whom are undergraduates. The Margaret Thatcher Scholarship Trust (MTST) was established at Somerville College in 2013 to fund and administer scholarships which ensure that some of the brightest students will graduate from Oxford debt-free. By Michaelmas 2020, Somerville will have 35 Tutorial Fellows.
Somerville is due to offer a Refugee Scholarship this year, supporting an outstanding scholar who has been forced to migrate from their home country. This builds on a tradition of offering shelter to refugee academics. In the 1930s, Somerville supported a number of eminent German scholars who were persecuted by the Nazi regime, including Lotte Labowsky, a classicist who became a Fellow at the college.
The current Principal is Jan Royall, Baroness of Blaisdon, a former Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council.