Lillian Penson – scholar and university administrator

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Lillian Penson

The University of London’s first PhD recipient of any gender, Lillian Penson went on to forge a stellar career in higher education that smashed gender stereotypes, being the first female professor of history and first female university vice-chancellor in the UK. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers” with no restriction based on religion, race or sex.

Born in Islington in 1896, Penson was a brilliant student of history at “The Birkbeck”. After a stint at the wartime Ministry of National Service and in the war trade intelligence department, Penson returned to her studies and completed her PhD. Only one-fifth of history PhD students were female at the time. She was a lecturer at Birkbeck for nine years until she left for a Chair in Modern History at Bedford College for Women.

Her leadership responsibilities in education expanded from managing the history department at Bedford College to the top position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, the first woman in that post. She was appointed a DBE in 1951.


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