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Inspired by the research degrees introduced by universities in the German-speaking world, the DPhil was intended to open up the University to a changing world of global mobility and scientific possibility, with much broader ideas about who should study and what should be studied. It offered students an unprecedented opportunity to shape their fields by contributing their own work and insights.
Here, Dr David Mills, Associate Professor, Department of Education, examines the origins of the new research degree at Oxford.
During the nineteenth century, ambitious American and British researchers had to travel to Germany if they wanted to study the new science of Chemistry at an advanced level. This led American universities to introduce research degrees of their own, starting with Yale University in 1841.
Calls to reform Oxford to support the growth of research began in earnest in the 1860s, led by Mark Pattinson, rector of Lincoln College. Oxford’s professorial post-holders began to imagine a role for themselves beyond undergraduate lecturing, and a ‘militant dining club’ of thirty academics committed to learning and science was set up to ‘diffuse the ideal of research’.
However, Oxford’s sense of purpose as a place of character-building, liberal undergraduate education made this diffusion far from smooth. One anonymous article in the 1907 Oxford Magazine disparaged ‘the evil of research without judgement or vocation’, and dismissed American and German doctoral dissertations as ‘futile enumeration and speculation’. Dr. David Mills.
Who were the first DPhil scholars?
From the beginning, the Oxford DPhil had an international outlook, designed to attract aspiring research academics from around the world to Oxford.
The first two DPhil students to be granted leave to supplicate and graduate came to Oxford from India and New Zealand. In the first decade of the DPhil, around half of all Oxford’s DPhil awards were made to international students.
In 1919, as the first students attempted the viva voce (oral examination), the idea of the DPhil as a research training as well as an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ was still taking shape. The first two scholars to complete the DPhil actually published their theses before they were examined at the University, though they were still required to defend them to Oxford examiners.
Although women had studied at Oxford since the late nineteenth century, they were not admitted as full members of the University until 1920. The first DPhil awarded to a woman came two years later, in 1922.
Undaunted, Oxford’s advocates focused on the importance of advanced degrees in supporting scholarly exchange and promoting academic relationships, particularly with universities in the British colonies.
Ultimately, though, the Oxford DPhil was the product of war-time realism. The First World War highlighted the lack of British state support for scientific and industrial research, prompting the Government to encourage British universities to create the new degree (Simpson 1983).
Whilst Oxford was the first university to introduce examination regulations for the DPhil in 1917, most UK universities followed suit, under commonly agreed regulations (Curthoys 2017).
In 1917, Oxford was the first university to introduce examination regulations for the DPhil.
Initially envisaged as an opportunity to attract the best international students from across the British Empire, the research degree also proved increasingly attractive as scientific training for ambitious British students. Almost 2,500 PhD degrees were awarded in the first decade alone.
Oxford’s postgraduate community grew significantly, and by the 1960s Oxford was home to equal numbers of postgraduates and undergraduates.
One hundred years of doctoral study later, the DPhil degree has facilitated global scientific advance, and reshaped Oxford as a cosmopolitan research community.
The first DPhil thesis submitted
Dr Lakshman Sarup
Dr Sarup was the first of many Indian students represented in the early years of the DPhil. In 1919, he became the first person to submit a DPhil thesis at Oxford.
He graduated from DAV College in Lahore in 1913 and obtained his MA in Sanskrit from Oriental College in Lahore in 1915. While working as a lecturer in Sanskrit at DAV College, he was awarded a scholarship by the Indian Government to study at Oxford, and he joined Balliol College in 1916.
Under the supervision of Professor AA Macdonell, he began work on his thesis: a study of Yāska’s Nirukta, the oldest Indian treatise on etymology, philology and semantics. This was the first ever critical edition of the text with an English translation, examining the contributions of ancient India and Greece to modern linguistics. The thesis was submitted on 29 November 1919.
After the end of WWI, Dr Sarup travelled around Europe to work with other colleagues in his field, particularly at the universities of Paris and Strasbourg.
In 1920, he was appointed Professor of Sanskrit Literature at Punjab University. Passionately interested in French literature, he started a French study group, the Minerva Club, and translated two of Molière’s plays into Hindi. For these translations he was recognised by the Académie Française – the first citizen of India ever to receive the honour.
While at Punjab University he introduced a dissertation to the MA, evidence of his strong belief in research training for graduate students.
‘Books were his companions. Scholarship was his life. But he was always more than a teacher to his students, he was their friend and guide.’ SD Bhanot, Sanskrit scholar, in Sarūpa-saurabham: tributes to Indology (1953), a memorial volume of academic work dedicated to Dr Sarup.
The first DPhil awarded to a woman
Dr Evelyn Mary Simpson
Two years after the first DPhil was awarded, Dr Simpson became the first woman to be awarded the DPhil in 1922, at a time when there were still considerable restrictions placed on women scholars.
Dr Evelyn Simpson studied English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge and became a fellow of the college. She published The Elizabethan Translations of Seneca’s Tragedies in 1912, and contributed to Studley’s Translations of Seneca’s Agamemnon and Medea, published 1913.
In 1914, she interrupted her research on Elizabethan drama to join the war effort. As a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, she worked in Red Cross and military hospitals in England and France, caring for wounded combatants. For her work, she received the Star Medal, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
When the DPhil was introduced, Dr Simpson was keen to take up this new pathway for aspiring researchers. On 18 November 1922 she became the first woman to be awarded the DPhil at Oxford, for her thesis ‘The Prose Works of John Donne’.
At the close of the war, she took a position as a tutor of English Literature at St Hugh’s College, but gave this up after marrying Percy Simpson in 1921. Yet she continued her academic research throughout her life, editing and publishing in collaboration with colleagues.
To her friends, Dr Simpson expressed frustration about the impact of her (unshared) household responsibilities on her work:
‘I don’t believe a committee composed of men can ever be brought to understand that it is impossible to do proper research work of a high quality if one has continuously to interrupt it to cook a joint and two vegetables, make gravy and the like.’
For over thirty years, she collaborated with her husband Percy on an 11-volume edition of Ben Jonson’s works. The first-listed author, CH Herford, died 20 years before the work was completed.
Her final work was a definitive 10-volume edition of John Donne’s sermons. Her collaborator, Professor George Potter of the University of California at Berkeley, passed away after the first volume was published in 1953, leaving Dr Simpson to carry on alone. Nine years later, she completed the work.
‘A monument of patience, learning and skill… a monument of courage’. Dame Helen Gardner, a fellow Donne scholar, describing Dr. Simpson’s final work in her London Times obituary.
The DPhil today
Oxford University is, above all, a community of talented people working to push the boundaries of human knowledge. Many parts of the University have stood for centuries, but our graduate community is always changing—and has grown significantly over the last 100 years.
In 1919 Oxford had only a few dozen graduate students, representing less than 1% of the student body. Today our graduate student community is larger than the undergraduate community, and includes over 6,000 DPhil students.
One of the original aims of the DPhil, to attract students from all over the world, remains very much alive today. More than half of our research students come from outside the UK, representing over 120 countries and nationalities. They bring with them a hugely valuable and diverse range of experiences.
The distinctive dress robes invented for the DPhil in 1917 are still worn today: ‘A full scarlet robe with bell-shaped sleeves, of which the body is made from scarlet cloth with facings and sleeves of blue silk.’
The DPhil, 100 years later
100 years after it was introduced, the DPhil remains a crucial part of the fabric of the University.
Oxford has continued to innovate, introducing DPhil courses in ever more subject areas, and new doctoral training programmes that provide students with opportunities to gain comprehensive skills training and experience in industry. The University now offers more than 120 DPhil programmes across the arts, sciences and social sciences.
Our DPhil students pursue important research in an incredible variety of fields and disciplines, and greatly enrich our community with their insights, energy and creativity.
Many of them go on to make vital contributions to society and the economy, becoming leading figures in their fields and helping to address major challenges facing the world today.
Curthoys, M (2017) “Origins of the Oxford DPhil”, Oxford Magazine (HT 2017, 13-17).
Simpson, R (1983) How the PhD came to Britain: A century of struggle for postgraduate education. Society for Research into Higher Education, Guildford.