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Alice Perry: The first female Engineering graduate in Ireland

The Galway woman was “the first lady to obtain the degree of Bachelor of Engineering in the UK”, graduating with first class honours in 1906.

Ella Hassett

This is the fourth instalment of NWCI’s “Sharing Stories of Women in History.” This woman’s story was brought to my attention by a close friend who remembers seeing a tribute to her in the old Engineering Building in NUIG. This is Alice Perry, the first female Engineering graduate..

ALICE JACQUELINE PERRY’S story is a key episode in the history of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), as she was the first female Engineering graduate in Ireland and the UK. She paved the way for the many female graduates that followed and continue to follow to this day.

Perry was born on the 24th of October 1885 in Wellpark, Co Galway, the daughter of James and Martha Perry. Her father was the County Surveyor for Galway, a post which involved travelling from Clifden to Gort inspecting public buildings and infrastructure. He and his brother, John Perry, founded the Galway Electric Light Company and John was a mechanical engineer and fellow of the Royal Society, known for his work on the navigational gyroscope.

This engineering influence within the family must have had an effect on Perry, as she showed an affinity for maths at an early age. She was educated at Millbrook House, then the High School Galway, where her academic abilities gained her a scholarship to attend Queen’s College Galway (now National University of Ireland Galway). She was one of five daughters, all of whom were well-educated and strong supporters of the womens’ rights movement in Galway.

Perry began her third level career as an Arts student, but her maths results prompted a change to Engineering. While studying for her degree, Perry acted as her father’s personal assistant as he carried out his duties as County Surveyor.

“Outstanding ability”

Perry’s ability for her chosen subject shone through in October 1906 when she graduated with a first class honours in Civil Engineering. At the Alumni Association dinner that year, Dr R.W. Leslie commented on the graduating class, including “the first lady to obtain the degree of Bachelor of Engineering in the UK”.

Perry was set to continue her academic career at postgraduate level, but unfortunately her father died and she could not accept the place. She did however take up his post and was the acting County Surveyor for five months until April 1907, making her the only female to take this position. Although she applied for the permanent job when it arose, she did not meet the age or experience criteria, but she came joint second among 17 candidates.

It was remarked in the Connacht Champion (dated 23rd February 1907) “the many and arduous duties of County Surveyor have never been better or more faithfully discharged than since they were taken over by Miss Perry… every member of the County Council has borne willing testimony to her outstanding ability”.

Focus on religion 

After a period of unemployment, Perry moved to London in 1908 and joined the Civil Service. This led her to the role of Lady Factory Inspector, a position that involved the monitoring of laws regarding women at work in industrial settings. One of the main responsibilities of this role concerned exposure to toxic substances in factory environments, such as lead and mercury.

She worked in London and Glasgow, where two significant life changes occurred. The first was her religious conversion from Presbyterian to Christian Science, a religious sect that had a base in Glasgow. The second was her marriage to a soldier called Robert Shaw on the 30th of September 1916. This joy was short-lived however, as Shaw died on the Western Front in 1917. It has been suggested that this loss, coupled with grief over the death of her parents, led Perry further into religious life and even though she was offered a promotion to Woman Deputy Superintendent Inspector, she retired from her post in 1921.

The rest of Perry’s life was dedicated to her religious beliefs. She also displayed an interest in poetry, publishing her first book of poems in 1922. In 1923, she moved to Boston, where the Christian Science movement had its headquarters, working as a practitioner and poet, publishing seven books of poetry in total. She made three visits back to Ireland, one of which in 1948 included a visit to the Department of Civil Engineering. Perry died on the 21st of August 1969 in Boston.

Alice Perry was a pioneer, the first woman to smash the glass ceiling for women in Engineering. Although she could not take the opportunity to continue to postgraduate level, she was commended for her work as County Surveyor and made her mark on history as the first female graduate in a male-only discipline.

Ella Hassett is a part time library assistant in Trinity College, Dublin, with a MPhil in Public History and Cultural Heritage, who devotes much of her time researching remarkable women in Irish history.

This post was first published by the National Women’s Council of Ireland and is reproduced here with permission. 

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Ella Hassett

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