by Nina Baker
This is the story of how a working class girl from London’s East End migrant community turned her talent for maths into a career as an expert in aerodynamics. It is also the story of how I found her story.
So… I saw on Twitter that Herstory was planning a STEM theme for August and I offered to do a piece for them. I thought it might be of interest to follow the process of uncovering a story, which I started to research only when Herstory said that they would indeed like a piece, my ‘process story’ started 21st July 2021.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin….
I have a particular interest in women who were scientific civil servants in aeronautic engineering. Many of these worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Farnborough, but there was a lot of support science elsewhere such as at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Teddington. My starting point was to look through the ‘Aerade’ lists of authors of papers for the Aeronautical Research Council (ARC) and pick a woman who seemed to have a lot of publications. Handily, they had done some of the work for me and included a woman called Doris E. Lehrian in their ‘Discover’ menu.
So now I had a name but nothing else. First stop, of course, was a Google search, which yielded plenty of hits but all seemed to refer to many papers and reports, which of course sent me back to my starting point – Aerade – from which I could start to assemble a list of her work and download some to get a feel for what she was up to. Next stop was Google Scholar and WorldCat.org to check if she had also written papers that were not for the ARC but in journals etc. From those sources, eliminating a lot of overlaps and duplicates published on different dates, I ended up with some 26 publications, spanning the years 1948-73. I will come back to the topics of her work later.
I still did not know anything about Doris the person. So, based on the useful information from the 1948 paper, I knew that by that year she had a BSc and was working at the Aerodynamics Division of the NPL. At this point I had to start guessing a bit: that this was her first paper as a relatively new graduate, which would suggest that perhaps she graduated in 1947 at the age of about 21 and therefore was born around 1926. These turned out to be not quite right but good enough to make a start on her genealogy in Ancestry. I do a family tree for any woman I am researching from scratch. Sometimes it produces wonderful information but other times the search peters out to nearly nothing.
The Ancestry process requires some guesswork to make a start, e.g. as to probable dates, and (if you do not know a spouse or parent’s name) that their father had the same name as theirs. Sometimes these are wrong of course, and cross-referencing different sources of information until you are sure that you have found the right person, can lead to the right information. So I started by assuming she was born in 1926 but it was actually 1923.
From Ancestry I was able to establish that Doris Emily Lehrian was born in Poplar in London’s East End in 1923, where her father, George Lehrian, was a woodworker. His father, Doris’s grandfather, had come to the UK from Darmstadt in Germany, so we can surmise that the family were working class second generation immigrants. Doris seems to have been an only child but her father’s sisters never married and lived with them at various times. Doris herself also never married and died in 2010. The many sources available via Ancestry include birth, marriage, death (sometimes also burial and probate records), the 1939 ID card register for England, electoral rolls, BT telephone books and census records up to 1911 (the 1921 census should be released soon). Most of her life Doris lived either with her family or with colleagues, in and around London. After her mother had died and after Doris retired she moved to Dorset for the rest of her life.
The next stage was to try to fill in her education. For this, particularly when the person has a less usual surname, I generally turn to the British Newspapers Archive (BNA). Like Ancestry, this requires a paid subscription but as I use both so much it has been more than worthwhile for me to pay for these resources. Using the BNA can be an iterative process, requiring some creative thinking as to search terms, dates, locations etc.
However, in Doris’ case, her unusual surname was very helpful and I quickly found three articles mentioning her progress at school. She was fortunate to attend an unusually excellent girls’ school for its time – the Coborn School – which was supported by the Coopers’ livery company, and even had good science teaching – in itself unusual for that period. A Google search on Coborn School produced a short account by another girl of the evacuation of the school.
The East London Observer, November 1942, relayed the usual annual report on pupils’ successes at the evacuated Coborn School, now in Taunton. This included the news that “Doris Lehrian was awarded the Hatton prize for Mathematics at Queen Mary College,” so now I knew where she had gone next.
This was all still on 21st July, the day I started researching her, but this is the point at which I had to reach out for help. I emailed Coborn School – which is fortunately still thriving – and a week later their delightfully helpful archivist sent me a scan of Doris’s school career from form IIIa (1934-5) to Upper VI (1940-41), although it is not clear if she joined the school before 1934. She was generally at or near the top of her year and became a prefect in 1939. Against her final results the head teacher noted that she should do well at university and that she had been awarded a “Gibson exhibition” (a scholarship).
The next enquiry went to the archives at Queen Mary University (as the college became) and again about a week for that to come back – which isn’t bad considering both the school and the university archivists were in their summer break and still not back to normal working after the Covid shut downs. The college produced her record card which included the only picture of Doris that I have so far found, and which is reproduced here with their kind agreement.
So, from 28 July I knew that Doris had attended Queen Margaret College (QMC) from 1941-43, did not attend in 1943-46 for reasons not given on the card, resumed in 1946-7 and graduated in 1947 with a BSc Special Honours Maths. She had had money to help with her costs from the London County Council Senior Exhibition, the Stepney & Bow Education Foundation and the Further Education Teaching Scholarship. In her second year she was awarded the Hatton mathematics prize. Her interests at the college included tennis and music – she was a ‘prominent member’ of the Music Society.
The QMC was the obvious place for her to go as it was specifically set up to benefit the poor but bright children of the East End:
“1934: East London College becomes Queen Mary College, named after Mary of Teck, wife of King George V. Sir Lynden Macassey, writes in the Times that Queen Mary, ‘stands in striking refutation of all the early critics, who thought that university education was an unnecessary luxury for east London…Drawn as the students are from classes which have their own way to make in the world, they achieve exceptional results in their degree examinations’.”
Again, her education was affected by the war as QMC women were evacuated to Cambridge. This may perhaps explain why she was not at college from 1943-46 – perhaps it was a problem for her family to have her not living at home. Or perhaps she decided to do war work. This is a gap in the story that we may never fill.
To return to the work that Doris went on to do in aerodynamics at the NPL: it was highly mathematical, which is no surprise given her degree in the subject. However, she got quite a low class of degree but clearly had considerable latent talent as her career shows. Initially she worked and published with V. M. Falkner on the pressures on swept-back wings. But from 1949 onwards she was often the sole author on reports on oscillation and flutter of wings, the effects of vortices on the behaviour of aircraft control surfaces (flaps, ailerons etc), with her work becoming increasingly theoretical.
These are very tough topics intellectually, but vital for the safety of all kinds of aircraft. You may recall that the Concorde airliner had ‘swept wings’, and many military planes have delta wings.
Having worked at NPL, Teddington for about 25 years, no more is heard of her work after 1973. I asked someone who themselves had worked in this field, but at RAE Farnborough, and they thought that a possible reason might have been: “About that time the NPL Aerodynamics Division was merged into Aerodynamics Dept, RAE, and many of the staff moved to join RAE at Bedford or Farnborough. I suspect that Doris chose not to transfer and remained in Teddington living with her mother. For a while, the remnants of NPL Aero became ‘RAE Teddington’ but this was soon closed down.”
Indeed Doris did continue to live with her mother Emiy, (her father died in 1962), in one of the modest terraced houses in Teddington Park Road, until her mother died in 1987, just short of her 100th birthday. The next record for Doris (Ancestry again) put her living in Sherborne, Dorset from 2003 onwards and finally she died in 2010.
There are lots of gaps in what we now know about Doris’ life and work, and although I put feelers out in various engineering and genealogical directions, it is probably unlikely that the gaps will be plugged unless someone reads this blog and knows another piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
About the Author
Dr Nina Baker has had a varied career, having become a Merchant Navy deck officer on leaving school and later taken an engineering design degree in her 30s, from the University of Warwick. She then gained a PhD in concrete durability from the University of Liverpool. She has lived with her family in Glasgow since 1989, working variously as a materials lecturer in further education and as a research administrator and, until 2017, as an elected city councillor. Now retired from all that, her interest in promoting STEM careers for girls has led her to become an independent scholar, specialising in the history of women in engineering. She is the volunteer historian for the Women’s Engineering Society