Inspiring Manchester People: Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw

2024 is a special year for The University of Manchester as we celebrate our 200th anniversary! This amazing milestone gives us an opportunity to reflect on all of the amazing and inspiring individuals who have made Manchester what we are today.

That’s why we’re delighted to share this series of blog posts written by our students – sharing the stories of individuals who inspire them from Manchester’s past and present.

In this post, second year student Ella, shares why she is personally inspired by the life of Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw. The University of Manchester is a proud beneficiary of support from The Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw Trust, which was founded in memory of Dame Kathleen to continue her legacy of generosity.

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw (1912 – 2014)

by Ella, LLB (Hons) Law, Year 2

I have chosen to write about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who was born on the 1st of October 1912. She was a fantastic mathematician who was born in Manchester and would later become the Lord Mayor of her native city.

When Dame Kathleen was a child she was seriously ill and despite her recovery, became deaf as a result. She was later taught how to lipread, but did not receive her first hearing aid until she was in her late 30s. Learning to lipread would prove challenging for a person of any age, let alone a child. And her inability to communicate with other children would have automatically put Kathleen at a disadvantage.

In her memoir, ‘To Talk of Many Things’, Dame Kathleen spoke of the fact that she never originally desired a career in mathematics. Her only goal was to keep pace with the other students in her classroom, without fear that her inability to hear would be misconstrued as laziness or a lack of intelligence. Dame Kathleen was a remarkable woman who won a scholarship to Oxford, and whilst she was there captained the women’s hockey team. In 1937, she joined the staff of the Shirley Institute, a research centre dedicated to cotton production technologies, as a statistician. She left this position soon after having her children but later went on to join The University of Manchester as a lecturer.

Despite being deaf and facing adversity, she was able to accomplish many amazing things as a mathematician, a lecturer of young minds at The University of Manchester and later, the Lord Mayor of Manchester. She even wrote a children’s book called Lord Mayor’s Party 1976. She was very successful in many different areas.

For me, Dame Kathleen is incredibly inspiring as she exemplifies how no matter the challenges you might face in life, whether its discrimination in terms of sexism, racism, homophobia, disability, mental illness etc, it is still possible to accomplish what you wish, as long as you choose to not allow anything obstruct your goals.

On a very personal level, Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw inspires me as there have been difficulties in my own life, which have the potential to stop me from achieving my aims. For example, I am the first person in my family to go to university and I am also from a low-income background. These aspects of my life have made my journey more difficult and have impacted me by creating a feeling of being utterly unprepared and nervous for the journey ahead. However, Dame Kathleen has shown me that I can change my mindset. I am also working on believing that these challenges were blessings, as they have pushed me to work harder.

In testament to the way in which her life has inspired others and her interest in astronomy, the Observatory at Lancaster University, was named after her. The Department of Mathematics here at Manchester also hosts an annual lecture in her name. Regardless of this, her memory would continue to live on, particularly in the hearts and minds of people such as myself, who require encouragement from time to time, to persevere even when we are struggling. She is truly an embodiment of what people can achieve in spite of hardship.