Her name has largely been forgotten but May Sybil Leslie, who grew up in Oulton and Woodlesford, was a remarkable woman who broke down barriers and made several significant scientific discoveries. She was born in 1887 and was one of the first working-class girls from Woodlesford to win a scholarship to secondary school in Leeds. After graduating in chemistry from the University of Leeds she worked with two world famous Nobel prize winning pioneers of radioactivity and the nuclear age. During the First World War she ran a laboratory doing critical work on the development of explosives.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty what the early influences on May Sybil were and what propelled her into a career in science, a highly unusual occupation for girls at that time, but there are clues from her family background and childhood. Her two older siblings were teachers and her father became a bookseller so they must have been well read and interested in “self improvement.” Her maternal grandfather died before she was born but he had been a labourer at Bentley’s brewery so she may have been aware of the stone square fermentation system used there which was based on the discoveries of the Yorkshire chemist, Joseph Priestley. Following the succces of a number of boys who gained scholarships from Woodlesford before her it also appears that her teachers recognised her talent and encouraged her to follow them.
Ancestry records indicate May Sybil’s paternal grandfather was Henry Leslie from the village of Abbotshall near Kirkaldy in Fife. Born in 1823 he became a blacksmith and seems to have migrated at a young age to Lancashire either as a boy with his parents or as a young man after he had served an apprenticeship. May Sybil’s father, Frederick, was born in Rochdale in 1843 but he and his family are missing from the census until he is located in 1871 at Bedminster Down near Bristol working as a coal miner. He was lodging at a beer house with another miner from Kearsley near Bolton suggesting the pair had gone south in search of work.
Fred Leslie then returned north and was still employed as a miner when, at the age of 32, he married Elizabeth Dickinson, 29, at Woodlesford church in November 1875. The service was conducted by the parish’s first vicar, Charles John Hussey, and the register was signed by Elizabeth’s older brother, Joseph, and the parish clerk, Edward Jellyman. It’s possible Fred moved to Yorkshire to work at a new pit between the railway and the canal in Woodlesford which started production in about 1872.
Edward Jelleyman may have witnessed the marriage, acting as the best man, because Fred was new to the area and had no friends to call upon. On the other hand they may have known each other before either of them came to the village. Edward had been born in Gloucester where he worked first as a dock policeman before becoming a railway guard. In about 1860 he moved with his young family to Bradford and it’s possible he met Fred travelling on a train. By 1871 he was living on Station Lane in Woodlesford earning a living as a tin plate worker and from his duties as the parish clerk.
May Sybil’s mother’s roots in the area were much deeper. In 1841 her parents, John and Elizabeth Dickinson (sometimes spelled Dickenson), and three older sisters and her brother Joseph were living at “Far Quarries” in Oulton. John was a labourer and came from Swillington but his wife and all the children were born in Oulton. They lived in a house or cottage in the same row as quarry owner Ann Burnill. The 1851 census gives the address as Burnill Yard, off Hobb Lane or Midland Street, and by then John was clearly working at the brewery. He later became a drayman. Two more children had come along before May Sybil’s mother was born in 1846 and baptised at one of the Methodist chapels in Oulton.
Elizabeth Dickinson was 15 years old when the 1861 census was taken but wasn’t living with her parents. She probably had some schooling in Oulton but, as was common, she would have gone into domestic service as a maid when she was 12 or 13 years old. A girl with the same name and age was working as a house servant for a widowed “gentlewoman” in Bramley in 1861. The census says she was born there but this could have been a mistake. Ten years later she was definitely back in Oulton and employed as a housemaid in the home of general practitioner Christopher Jewison who lived at the large house called The Elms off Farrer Lane. Jewison had gone to medical school in London and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons so this connection of Elizabeth to an educated man with a library of scientific books could have had an influence on her and her children.
One story May Sybil Leslie would have been told as a child was about the tragic death of her grandmother Dickinson who was killed in an accident getting off a train 16 years before she was born. Whether any of the details were given to her isn’t known but they have been preserved in a coroner’s report which is kept by the West Yorkshire Archive Service.
The inquest was held at the Midland Hotel, close to Elizabeth Dickinson’s home, on Tuesday 24 January 1871. The first witness was her eldest daughter, Mary Ann, who was married to brewery labourer Thomas Harrison. They lived next door to her mother on Hobb Lane. She said Elizabeth was 67 years old, rheumatic, and subject to dizziness but enjoyed good health. On Saturday afternoon she had seen her mother leave with her 10 year old granddaughter, Frances Harrison, to go to Leeds to stay overnight with one of her other daughters. The next time she saw her was the following afternoon lying dead in the waiting room at Woodlesford station.
It transpired that on Sunday afternoon Elizabeth Dickinson and her granddaughter had caught the 2.15 p.m. train from Leeds Wellington station. It was one of only three local trains that ran on a Sunday stopping at all the stations between Leeds and Derby. Frances told the inquest that Elizabeth was in a compartment sitting close to the carriage door. As the train was arriving at Woodlesford, but before it came to a stop, Elizabeth put one foot on the carriage step, or footboard, and was trying to put her other foot onto the platform but she slipped and fell with her head towards the engine. Frances said a porter had opened the door whilst the train was still moving but neither she nor any of the other passengers had got up to get off. Her grandmother had lived for about 20 minutes after she was injured.
Another passenger, Arthur Riley, an engine cleaner who lived in Hunslet, had a slightly different version of what happened. He said he saw a man open the door and get out. Elizabeth then got up. He told her to wait but she took no notice of him and as she put one foot on the platform she fell sideways between the footboard and platform.
From the evidence of the train’s guard it was clear that Elizabeth had fallen and been crushed between the train and the platform. Edward Riley, a Leeds resident, said he had applied his brake and as the train was just coming to a stop he saw Elizabeth wedged between the footboard of a carriage and the side of the platform. Her feet were on the ballast and she was crushed “about the bottom of her back.” He said he had to get the driver to reverse the train about a yard to get her free. “She seemed to be insensible and blood flowed from her mouth. The space between the footboard and platform is about 5 inches. There did not appear to be any ice on either,” he said. The coroner recorded that it had been an accident and Elizabeth was buried the following day in the same grave at Oulton as her husband who had died the previous year.
After their marriage in 1875 Fred and Elizabeth Leslie lived at an address in Woodlesford where their first child, Olive, was born in 1876. She was baptised at Oulton St. John’s church suggesting they moved to Chadwick’s Row on Quarry Hill in Oulton about the same time. They were still there when the 1881 census was taken and Fred was still working as a miner, although he would have been at a different pit as the Woodlesford colliery closed down in 1878. A son, Harold, was born in 1878 and also baptised at Oulton. Living next door were mechanic Samuel Holt, his wife Mary, and their six children. All of them had been born in Rochdale suggesting Fred knew Samuel from his youth in Lancashire.
Evidence that Fred had “aspirations” for himself and his children comes in a report from the Rothwell Times in August 1878 showing he was a member of the Woodlesford and Oulton Mechanics’ Institute. The report gave the results of an examination set by the Science and Arts Department in South Kensington which had been created by the government in 1853 to improve training in science, technology and design. Fred was just one of five local men who had taken courses in building construction, geometry, perspective, modelling, and freehand drawing taught by joiner Herbert Lockwood, the 21 year old son of master joiner and builder George Lockwood. Mining engineer and architect Robert John Smith, who came top of the class, and Fred Leslie, who came second, were awarded a Queen’s Prize each for their results.
By the time May Sybil was born in August 1887 the Leslies had moved to Cloverfield Villa, a much larger house on Midland Street which had previously been the home of the village doctor, James Nowell, and his family. The house was technically in Woodlesford and as a result May Sybil was baptised at All Saints church by the vicar, Arthur Irvin. During the 1880s Fred Leslie gave up coal mining and became a sign writer. His name appears amongst more than 40 “commercial” businesses in Woodlesford in the 1888 Kelly’s Directory of the West Riding. In the Leeds edition he was listed under “Writers and Grainers.”
A year later Fred was appointed by the Hunslet Rural District Council as the lamplighter for Oulton responsible for turning on and lighting the gas street lights in the evening and turning them off again late at night. He was paid 11 shillings a week, only about half of the normal wage for the period, so he must have needed an additional source of income to supplement what he earned from sign writing. The distance he had to cover seems to have been greater than the Woodlesford lamplighter, William Hulme, who was appointed a year later and only paid 9 shillings and 6 pence.
The 1891 census shows the Leslie family still in the same house but by then Fred gave his occupation as a school board attendance officer. The board was an elected committee of the Oulton-with-Woodlesford township and one report from 1891 says Fred had complained to them about the payment of his salary of £3 15 shillings a month “which had been somewhat irregular in the past.” They decided that in future he should receive his cheque on the night of their monthly meetings.
The board had been established under the 1870 Elementary Education Act mainly to supervise the new school at Woodlesford which started in temporary accommodation in 1878 before the purpose built school opened in March 1880. As a Church of England “National” school St. John’s at Oulton was run differently and managed by the vicar with regular inspections, and financial support, coming from the Calverley family at Oulton Hall. At both schools there were separate classrooms for infants, boys and girls, each with their own head teacher. Officially they were referred to in the plural as the Woodlesford Board Schools and the Oulton National Schools.
Fred Leslie’s job was to enforce the law and chase up persistent absentees and truants. From 1880 to 1893 it was compulsory to go to school between the ages of 5 and 10 but the 1870 act allowed school boards to pass local by-laws making attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 13. In theory children over the age of 10 could leave provided they had reached a certain standard. This could vary from place to place and it appears the Oulton-with-Woodlesford board set a high standard leading to most children having to stay at school until they were at least 12.
One entry in the Oulton boys’ school log book, by the headmaster Ernest Boothroyd in September 1892, says he was handed a list of names of children who’d been taken on by a farmer to pull peas. They were all under 12 and in Standards IV and V. The log book doesn’t record what action was taken but presumably the farmer, the children and their parents were given a severe talking to by Fred and threatened with being taken to court if they didn’t go back to school.
The Leslie family’s connections to St. John’s school were even deeper when May Sybil was growing up because both her sister and brother became “pupil” teachers there. This meant that from about the age of 13 they were serving a 5 year apprenticeship under the headmaster and headmistress and taking regular examinations enabling them to become fully qualified teachers. As a result May Sybil must have watched her brother and sister at their studies and perhaps her own academic abilities were enhanced by them practising on her! She would certainly have had access to the many books, bought and borrowed, they would have brought home.
Olive and Harold are referred to in the Oulton school log books which recorded daily activities and inspections. Olive, for instance, won a medal in 1890. Two years later she was one of three girl pupil teachers working with the headmistress, Sarah Ann Parish. In September, when her friend Amy Lee was away sick, she had to cope with teaching in Standards II and III whilst Effie Poole looked after Standard I. The same month she taught a lesson on how to cook sago. In October 1894 she gave a “criticism” lecture to Standard II on “The Tweed” whilst a month later Harold gave the same class a lesson on “The Lake District.” These were probably lessons where their teaching abilities were assessed.
With her brother and sister to take her to school and watch over her there May Sybil Leslie started as an infant at Oulton not long after she was 3 years old. This would have been in 1890 or 1891. From the infants she went into the girls’ school where she completed Standard I, but then in May 1895, when she was seven and half years old she transferred to the Standard II class in the girls’ school at Woodlesford. Why this happened is unknown but it was probably a combination of factors. Woodlesford was a much newer and larger school so her parents may have thought she would do better there. Olive Leslie had already left to attend college and her brother went away to study at St. John’s College in York for two years in 1895 so that may have been a reason. Perhaps it was simply because Woodlesford was marginally closer to their house and May Sybil wouldn’t have to walk along Aberford Road which, although it had very little traffic, may have been deemed too dangerous for her.
Another reason May Sybil changed schools could have been the reputation of the headmistress and “certificated” teacher at Woodlesford who Fred Leslie would have known well. She was Kate Sidebottom who’d been in charge since 1890. Born in 1868 she had impeccable educational credentials as both her parents, Edwin and Martha, were teachers in charge of the National Schools at Altofts. Kate continued to live at a house called The Hollies with them and would have commuted daily by train from Altofts station.
Since her appointment she’d done much to improve the quality of the girls’ school and as a result examination scores had gone up and more money had been added to the school budget. In her first full year in 1891 Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools had reported that “considerable improvement” had been made but reading, writing and spelling required improvement. Arithmetic was very good in all the standards but grammar was weak. Needlework was good.
In February of 1894 Kate applied to the school board for an increase in her salary of £75 a year but they turned her down. A year later she wrote to them again. Her letter was read out at the board’s meeting and published the following Friday, 1 March 1895, in the Rothwell Times: “I now venture to renew my application, and trust you will be able secede to my request. I may mention that I have now been in the schools close on 5 years, and at the last four examinations have received “excellent” grants. The average has also increased from about 76 to 120 last year. Extra subjects have been taken and this year drawing, kindergarten, etc. are added. After taking these statements into consideration, I feel sure you will see that a higher remuneration is due to me,” she wrote.
Board member William Henry Newsome proposed an increase of £5 a year. Arthur Irvin, who was the chairman, suggested £10. “Miss Sidebottom is a good teacher and well worth keeping. The school, under her management has been worked up to a high state of perfection, and the board has every justification in making the advance,” he said. This persuaded Newsome and he altered his resolution to £10, which was seconded by William Downes, a miner and shopkeeper, and unanimously carried.
As it turned out Kate Sidebottom only taught May Sybil Leslie for about 18 months because she resigned in November 1896. Her father had died in 1894 leaving a substantial amount of money, worth more than £300,000 today. The 1901 and 1911 census returns show that neither Kate nor her mother continued to work, so it looks as though they both had enough income to retire on. One thing that may have happened though, during those lessons in 1895 and 1896, was that Kate may have been the inspiration that led May Sybil into a scientific career. The evidence is slim and relates to Edwin Sidebottom who, in 1869, won a second class certificate in a science class for schoolmasters at the Wakefield Industrial and Fine Art Institution. Science wasn’t a separate subject in elementary schools at that time. They concentrated in the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic, so Edwin showed an unusual interest. It’s possible therefore that he passed this on to Kate who then gave some scientific instruction to her pupils, including May Sybil.
One of the largest gatherings in the Woodlesford school year was the annual presentation of prizes to successful “scholars.” As the Rothwell Times reported: “It was always an interesting event, and one in which the parents, as well as the children, took especial delight.” The first attended by May Sybil was on an evening in December 1895. She hadn’t been there long enough to be given a prize, in the form of a “beautifully bound and carefully-selected book,” but she would have witnessed other girls and boys coming top of their classes for the previous school year and being applauded as they went up to collect their books.
The event that year also stood out because it marked the installation of an “honours” board which had been made to celebrate the success of seven children from the school who had won scholarships and gone on to secondary education in the previous decade. All of them were boys up to that point. The board, made by joiner Walter Lockwood out of dead walnut with a frame of polished oak, had been paid for by the vicar’s wife, Constance Irvin, daughter of the brewery owner Henry Bentley. A “distinguished” guest was invited to unveil it and make a speech. He was the Armley linen manufacturer and Liberal MP for Leeds East, Thomas Richmond Leuty. An active member of the Headingley Congregational church he had lived in Woodlesford when he was a boy in the 1850s. He handed out prizes to the boys, his wife gave the girls their books, and Mrs Irvin looked after the infants.
As the Rothwell Times reported: “Many representatives of the leading families of the village,” were in the audience. The unveiling took place shortly after eight o’clock. “As many of the parents and inhabitants, with the school board members and officials, as could find room in the boys’ department, prepared for the unique ceremony of unveiling the tablet. The boys, under their teaching staff, took a deep interest in the gathering, and were a pattern of good behaviour, obedience, and attention, throughout the whole ceremony,” it said.
There was a round of applause during Arthur Irvin’s speech when he said he believed Her Majesty’s Inspectors considered it was a village school “second to none in Yorkshire.” For many years the boys’ department had been awarded “the highest grants, and were noted for their general efficiency.” At the next inspection they hoped to receive “excellent” reports in all three departments.
Thomas Leuty untied a string to reveal the board with the names of the seven boys and the years they had been awarded a scholarship written in gold leaf. The first was William Henry Cook, son of the Woodlesford stationmaster who’d gone to Leeds Boys’ Modern School in 1886. He later became a railway clerk.
Of the others the one that stands out in relation to May Sybil Leslie’s future career is Bilton Langstaff who won a West Riding county scholarship in 1893. Born in 1880 he was the son of Henry Langstaff who had a grocery shop opposite the school which also sold stationery and newspapers. Bilton was one of seven successful candidates out of seventy on the outskirts of Leeds. His grant covered school fees and railway fares to a secondary day school for two years with an option for a third year if his examination results were good.
Forging a path that Sybil May would soon follow Bilton studied in Leeds and obtained bachelor’s degrees in both arts and science. In 1908 he married Beatrice Waide, daughter of Woodlesford’s leading Methodist, printing factory owner Thomas Waide. By 1911 Bilton was teaching science at Goole Secondary School. He was ordained a Methodist minister and, after several years as headmaster at Thorne Grammar School near Doncaster, in 1925 he established a boarding school for boys at Rhos-on-Sea near Colwyn Bay in North Wales.
Whether May Sybil was aware of Bilton’s achievements after he left school isn’t known but it’s clear that the teachers and the school board must have come to recognise the importance of a grounding in scientific and technical subjects for all their pupils, boys and girls. Also, reading between the lines of the speech given by Thomas Leuty, although he didn’t mention girls specifically, as a radical Liberal he must have championed their secondary education. Speaking of national education policy he said they had “not yet reached finality.”
“Not one of them would feel satisfied with the great educational machinery of the country, until every child within the shores of the kingdom had an opportunity of getting the highest and most complete education the country could afford, so as to fit them for any walk of life they might aspire to. The ladder from the board school to the university should be made more accessible, so that the best talent in the country, whether coming from the working classes or the rich, should have the opportunity of rising and coming to the front,” he is reported to have said. Reflecting his position as a Liberal factory employer he spoke about trade and the necessity of a thorough system of education, “so as to fit the rising generation for successfully coping with all foreign competition.”
For the next three years of her education Sybil May’s headmistress was Agnes Fawcett. The daughter of a boot maker, she came from Dent near Sedbergh in the Yorkshire Dales which at that time was still in the West Riding. When she was a girl an assistant school mistress had stayed with her family which may have been the catalyst for her to become a teacher. She did her training at a college in Ripon and started at Woodlesford on 1 December 1896, probably her first appointment as a certificated teacher. It’s possible she applied for the post because Woodlesford and Dent were connected by the Midland Railway via Leeds enabling her to make regular trips home to see her parents.
During the week Agnes was a lodger in the home of Thomas Nettleton whose son, William, taught at Oulton school. It may have been through him or through social or professional gatherings of teachers that she met her husband, William Peaker. One step further up the education ladder, he was the son of a Hunslet school headmaster and had studied science in Leeds, most likely at the Yorkshire College, the forerunner of the city’s university. This raises the possibility of William being another source of encouragement for May Sybil to sit for the necessary examinations to enable her to develop her talents. After they married in 1901 William and Agnes Peaker lived at Beeston Hill and he became a technical teacher at one of the Leeds secondary schools. One of their sons, Gilbert Fawcett Peaker, won a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge. In 1927, after several teaching posts around the country, he was appointed the assistant to the Director of Education in Coventry. In 1960 he was awarded a CBE for his work as an inspector at the Ministry of Education.
No memoirs or letters by May Sybil Leslie concerning her childhood appear to have survived so many of these suggestions about the influences on her are speculation. Undoubtedly she must have had an innate talent but it’s clear that without the encouragement of her parents, her older siblings, her teachers and influential community leaders like Arthur Irvin, she may not have succeeded. In the wider world interest in the education and training of the working classes in late Victorian England also played its part as did ideas of female emancipation, although they were slow to become accepted amongst the largely male political establishment, locally and nationally.
A key factor may have been the closeness of her home to Leeds and the opportunity to easily reach one of the city’s secondary schools. Had May Sybil lived much further away in a more rural location the daily journey might not have been possible. The school register shows that her last day at Woodlesford school was Friday 28 July 1899, the end of the school year and just two weeks short of her twelfth birthday. The school closed at 4 p.m. after the girls had been given intensive cookery lessons on the last three days of the term so they finished the course before the holidays.
The reason for her withdrawal was given as “Higher Grade” showing she must have already passed an examination and been awarded a West Riding scholarship to go to the Leeds Central Higher Grade School. The register shows that Edith Waide went there before May Sybil in 1898 but as the daughter of a factory owner her father may have paid her school fees and travelling expenses. Most of the other entries in the register say “Required at Home” or “Left the Village.” Some say “Gone into Service” which meant that the girls concerned went to “live in” as domestic servants in Leeds and elsewhere. Four girls from Oulton school with working class backgrounds had gone to the higher grade school in 1897.
May Sybil Leslie’s secondary school had been established by the Leeds School Board in 1885 in a room attached to the Oxford Place Chapel near the Town Hall. In 1887 a decision was taken to invest £40,000 in a brand new multi-storey building, with accommodation for 2,500 children, on a site at the junction of Woodhouse Lane and Great George Street. When the new school opened in 1889 it was described as “one of the finest and largest of its kind the kingdom.” The new building had physics and chemistry laboratories, workshops and a gymnasium.
Many of the teachers had been educated at universities. From the beginning there were separate girls and boys departments and in 1890, when he announced 16 new scholarships to the school, the self-made Leeds industrialist George Bray stipulated that they should all be open to girls as well as boys. The school attracted fee paying pupils from middle class families outside the city and there was some controversy that they were being subsidised by Leeds ratepayers who payed more than those outside the city boundary.
Little is known about May Sybil’s time at the higher grade school. The 1901 census records that she was living with her parents in Woodlesford so she must have travelled by train into Leeds on schoolday mornings, returning in the evenings. Olive and Harold were also back at home and employed as fully qualified elementary school teachers probably at Oulton National Schools. They were still at Cloverfield Villa in 1902 and paying an annual rent of £15 when the house was sold to a new landlord for £340 at Oliver and Appleton’s Exchange Auction Mart on Lands Lane in Leeds.
In June 1905, when she was 17 years old, May Sybil won a West Riding major scholarship to the University of Leeds to study chemistry, physics and mathematics. The amount was about £65 a year for three years and in the examinations less than 10 per cent of candidates were successful. The grant was topped up by an Emsley scholarship of £20 a year from a £1000 fund bequeathed in 1886 by Thomas Emsley of Burley-in-Wharfedale to the Yorkshire College. It had been founded in 1874 to provide “instruction in such sciences and arts as are applicable or ancillary to the manufacturing, mining, engineering and agricultural industries of the County of York.” Its first student was Shadrach Stephenson from Methley and its possible he was known to the Leslie family as he became the manager at Bower’s Fleakingley Beck pit near Swillington where many men from Woodlesford were employed. After a period combined with colleges in Manchester in Liverpool as part of the federal Victoria University the Yorkshire College was granted a royal charter by King Edward VII in 1903 and it became the University of Leeds.
About the same time as Sybil started there her parents moved to Park View Terrace in Halton where Fred became a bookseller, perhaps to liquidate some of the volumes his children had accumulated during their studies. The house was half a mile from Cross Gates railway station and about the same distance from the electric tramway along York Road. It’s possible therefore that the move was made to enable their daughter to continue to live at home with more options for travelling in to the centre of Leeds for her studies.
At the university May Sybil attended lectures given by Arthur Smithells, a professor who took a keen interest in the science education of girls and women. Whilst at Owens College in Manchester he had taught at a nearby high school and was quoted as saying: “The first teaching I ever attempted was in a girls’ high school, and I have at least a first-hand knowledge of a wrong way of doing it!”
With Smithells’ support May Sybil was awarded a Bachelor of Science with first class honours in chemistry in 1908. She then received a university research scholarship to study with Harry Medforth Dawson. Born in Bramley he was 11 years older than her and had built up a reputation as an expert in physical chemistry. They published a joint scientific paper in 1909 and as a result she was given a Master of Science degree. Recognising her talent the university council nominated her for the prestigious 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, open to students worldwide from a fund created from the profits of the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in London. The nomination was reported in the Leeds Mercury in March and the following September, under the headline “Leeds Girl’s Striking Success,” it proudly announced that she had won the £150 a year grant. “This is the first time in the history of the University that the 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship has been awarded to a woman student,” it said.
With the grant May Sybil decided to study with one of the most celebrated scientists of the Edwardian era, Marie Curie, at her laboratory in Paris. Originally from Poland she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in 1903. Following the discovery of X-rays by Henri Becquerel in 1895 she had used a device invented by her husband, Pierre, to measure small amounts of electric charge coming from uranium. Subsequently she coined the term “radioactivity” and developed its theory. She deduced there must be other radioactive elements and discovered polonium in 1898, naming it after her native country, and then radium. Tons of uranium ore had to be crushed and distilled to find tiny quantities of these elements, a process that must have been harder than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Knowledge of the two years May Sybil Leslie spent in Paris lay dormant in the Special Collections archive at the University of Leeds for nearly a century until it was re-discovered by Canadian researchers Marlene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham and published in their books about women scientists, “Chemistry Was Their Life” and “Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity.” One of the letters they found was written by Professor Smithells introducing May Sybil to Madame Curie: “This lady is of very high personal character and of exceptionally good intellectual abilities. She studied chemistry for three years and distinguished herself greatly. I am sure you would find her in every way an earnest and excellent worker.”
The Canhams speculated that May Sybil’s work in Paris, which involved dealing with kilogram quantities of minerals in huge jars and bowls, must have been “a completely new experience.” This would have been true compared with her time in the labs at Leeds but possibly not from her childhood, it being a reasonable assumption that at least some of May Sybil’s abilities in chemistry were acquired through learning to cook with her family and at school in Woodlesford!
Marie Curie only spoke a few words of English so May Sybil didn’t interact with her a great deal apart from attending lectures at the Sorbonne: “She does not speak English at all nor does she appear to understand spoken English except a few scientific terms. She speaks very quickly and to the point and is very quiet in manner but by no means languid,” she wrote. Many of the male students came from Poland and lacked English but May Sybil made lasting friendships with two other women on the course, one from Norway, the other from Sweden. They continued to correspond and whilst on holiday together years later they sent a postcard to Marie Curie from Scotland.
May Sybil spent two years in France although she returned to England each summer to help Arthur Smithells with a domestic science course he ran in Scarborough. Whilst there she would have easily been able to visit her brother and sister. Olive had become the head teacher of the school at Wintringham in Ryedale, a few miles from Malton in the North Riding, and Harold was in charge of Hunmanby school near Filey in the East Riding.
In 1911 the West Riding education authority offered May Sybil the chance to train at their new college at Bingley but she wasn’t keen on the idea: “My lack of experience will probably be an insurmountable difficulty in the way of my obtaining such a post but can at any rate make the attempt,” she wrote to Smithells.
In the event she decided not to take up the offer and instead applied to work with yet another scientific titan, Ernest Rutherford, at his laboratory in Manchester. A fellow winner of the 1851 Exhibition scholarship, he had already been awarded a Nobel prize in 1908 and for “splitting” the atom in 1917 he would come to be known as “the father of the nuclear age.” The fact that May Sybil was associated with not one but two of the most creative and influential scientists of her age shows that she too must have been highly gifted. A reference from Curie to Rutherford called her an “assiduous and intelligent worker.”
After publishing further articles May Sybil went into teaching, possibly because she would be guaranteed a regular income. She spent two years as science mistress at a girls’ high school in West Hartlepool and then in 1914 moved across the Pennines to the University College of North Wales at Bangor where she fitted out a small physical chemistry laboratory. With the outbreak of the Great War, as Ernest Rutherford invented a device for detecting German submarines now known as sonar, and Marie Curie set off for the front line with mobile X-ray vans, May Sybil applied herself to the dangerous business of making explosives.
As many of her female contemporaries from her school days in the Woodlesford area went by charabanc to pack shells at the massive Barnbow works near Cross Gates, May Sybil was given a job as a research chemist at a government munitions factory in Liverpool. Later she moved to another establishment at Penrhyndeudraeth in North Wales. The work involved understanding the production of nitric acid and dealing with large amounts of it needed for making trinitrotoluene, TNT. Up to then the job had been done by men but many of them had volunteered to join the army and the shortage of qualified staff meant that May Sybil was quickly promoted to be in charge of the laboratory, a highly unusual role for a woman.
After being awarded a Doctor of Science degree by the University of Leeds in 1918, mainly for her war work, May Sybil spent the next ten years teaching there, one of the few women on the staff. In 1923 she married Alfred Hamilton Burr, who she had met in Liverpool. He had become a lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Technical College in Salford and for the first few years of their marriage she must have travelled regularly by train across the Pennines as she continued to lecture in Leeds. She also wrote chapters in what became a classic textbook on inorganic chemistry. In 1925 the couple sailed from London to Marseilles on the Ranpura to take a delayed honeymoon in the south of France.
In 1929 May Sybil moved with her husband to his native Scotland where he taught at Coatbridge Technical College near Glasgow. After he died in 1933 she moved back to Leeds to continue researching with a guaranteed income as a warden of one of the women’s halls of residence at the university.
Towards the end of her life May Sybil was looked after by her widowed sister-in-law who was the same age and appears to have inherited her house. Hilda Marsden had married Harold Leslie in Leeds in August 1913. In the Great War he left his teaching post to serve as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and in 1919 was invalided home because of sickness. He died at the end of April 1920 but a few months earlier was well enough to a father a son. Frank Marsden Leslie was born in August 1920 and, no doubt taking his inspiration from his aunt, when he grew up he became a nuclear physicist.
May Sybil Leslie died at home her home on Rigton Lane at Bardsey on 3 July 1937, a few weeks short of her 50th birthday. She’d been working until a month earlier. An obituary in the Yorkshire Post said she was “one of the University’s most distinguished woman graduates.” No cause of death was given but it’s highly likely that she died from a cancer, possibly caused either by the chemicals she had handled or by the radioactivity she encountered in Paris and Manchester. Its harmful effects were poorly understood at the time and Marie Curie herself had died in 1934 from anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.
In an obituary for the Journal of the Chemical Society her friend and colleague Herbert Dawson remarked that up to that point she was the only woman Leeds graduate who had been given a science doctorate. As a teacher “she was exceptionally gifted and spared no effort to remove the difficulties encountered by students in their contact with scientific problems.”
He went on to remark that as an undergraduate she could easily have succeed in English if she had for some reason wanted to give up chemistry. “To her intimate friends she was known as a woman of the highest ideals, of wide human sympathies and of great earnestness of purpose. Her reticence and innate modesty limited the circle of her acquaintances, but such restriction would doubtless count for very little in comparison with the respect and sincere regard of those who were privileged to enjoy her confidence,” he wrote.