Photos of Mona Hirst and Mary Lee Berners-Lee in earlier life

The Mary Lee Berners-Lee Prize is for outstanding performance by a third year non-graduating student, and the Mona Hirst Prize is for an outstanding group project in 1MMPS Mathematical Modelling and Problem Solving. Mary Lee Berners-Lee and Mona Hirst were two early graduates from the School, both of whom went on to have very successful careers. We are very proud to be able to name these prizes in their honour.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee graduated with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Birmingham in 1947, having also undertaken two years of wartime service at the Telecommunications Research Laboratory in Malvern between her final two years of study. Following three years working as an astronomer in Australia, Mary Lee returned to the UK, taking up a position as a computer programmer for the engineering company Ferranti. Here, she played an integral role in the team that developed programmes for the world's first commercially available computer: the Ferranti Mark I.

A photo of a young Mary Lee Berners-Lee and a photo of Mary Lee Berners-Lee later in life
A young Mary Lee Berners-Lee (left) and later in life (right)

After starting a family in the 1950s, Mary Lee took what – at the time – was the unusual step of becoming a freelance programmer and working from home. She later taught mathematics at secondary schools, before returning to her love of the precise language of computer programming later in life.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee’s legacy lies not only in her contribution to the computing world or the generations of scientists she has inspired, both her own family and her pupils, but also as a champion for women in mathematics and computer science. While at Ferranti, she represented women in the campaign for gender equality and helped to win the right to equal pay for female programmers. This was almost twenty years before the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Mona Hirst was one of the very first students to graduate with a masters degree in Mathematics from the University of Birmingham. Having successfully earned a first class BA in Mathematics and Latin (1924), she went on to study for a Masters in Mathematics (1925), writing her thesis on asymptotic expansions: a technique still widely used in applied mathematics today and a popular module with our current students.

A photo of Mona Hirst at her University of Birmingham graduation and a photo of Mona Hirst reading to her grandchild
A young Mona Hirst at graduation (left) and later in life, reading to her grandchild (right)

Upon graduation, Mona lectured at Queen's University Belfast for four years before embarking on a career as an engineer. She joined the design team at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working on the structural metalwork for the rigid airships R100 and R101, that were commissioned by the British government to provide long-distance passenger and mail transport.

As a member of the civil service in 1933, Mona was forced to resign her position as an engineer upon marriage. The marriage bar was finally abolished in 1946, but by this time Mona had retrained to teach mathematics at secondary schools. She continued successfully in this profession until retirement.

Mona Hirst is an inspirational female mathematician and engineer, having paved the way for generations of mathematicians, both through her teaching and within her own family.