Edith Thomson PhD (1901-1988)

Aileen Fyfe
Monday 22 March 2021
Edith Elizabeth Bruce Thomson, MA 1923; PhD 1928 (later Mrs Bracelin)
Edith Thomson was the second woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in History at St Andrews. Her academic career appears to have been very similar to that of Edith MacQueen, who had been awarded a Ph.D. just one year earlier: both were from Angus; both were undergraduates at St Andrews; both held the Berry Research Scholarship; both won the Hume Brown Essay Prize;  both won research fellowships from the Carnegie Trust; and both spent three years at Yale University, USA as Commonwealth Fund fellows.
Edith Thomson was born in Logie Pert (Angus) in 1901, the daughter of Mr and Mrs David Thomson of Fettercairn. She was educated at Brechin High School, and then came to St Andrews. As she wrote in the ‘career summary’ attached to her PhD thesis:
“I matriculated in the University of St Andrews in October 1919, and followed a course leading to graduation in Arts with First Class Honours in English and History in October 1923. In October 1924 I added Post-graduate Honours of the Second Class in History, Modern and Mediaeval.
“In June 1924 I was elected to the Berry Research Scholarship in History tenable for two years, and in March 1926 I was awarded the Hume Brown Essay Prize for the results of my researches submitted as an essay on ‘The Scottish Parliament 1690-1702′. In July 1926 I was elected to a Carnegie Research Fellowship which enabled me to continue the researches on which this present thesis is based. In July 1927 the Fellowship was renewed for the current academic year.”

Her thesis was entitled ‘Scotland under Lauderdale‘. She was supervised by John W. Williams, who had been the Lecturer in Modern History since 1921, and would become the first Professor in 1929. (He was also the brother-in-law of Principal Irvine.)

Edith Thomson was clearly very academically able, with her first-class honours MA, postgraduate honours, and as a winner of the Hume Browne prize. According to Principal Irvine (who wrote a reference for her application to the Commonwealth Fund in February 1928), she was ‘the best Scottish graduate in History over a period of two years’. He went on to say that ‘Miss Thomson possesses ability, maturity and personality; she is an excellent public speaker and very probably will take up a political career. She makes a habit of success and I can imagine no better candidate’  

Edith Thomson was indeed awarded a Commonwealth Fund visiting fellowship, and spent the years 1928-31 at Yale. She studied with professor Andrews, and undertook research on ‘the Scottish American Tobacco Trade in the eighteenth century’. Some part of this was published as a two-part article on ‘A Scottish Merchant in Falmouth in the Eighteenth Century’ in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (1931).

The fellowship was only available to unmarried candidates. On Thomson’s return to the UK in 1931, she married Peter Bracelin (1902-?1977), whom she had surely met at St Andrews. Peter went to school in Arbroath, and studied at St Andrews at the same time as Edith. While she was in the USA, he went to Cambridge, and then became an officer-instructor in the Royal Navy (rising to Instructor-Captain, and being awarded both OBE and CBE). They had two sons, both of whom would later join the Navy.

Edith’s experiences in the US may have stood her in good stead when her husband’s naval career took her to Malta (1932), Jamaica (1942), and Washington (where Peter served with the Combined Chiefs of Staff, 1943-46). By the 1950s, they appear to have settled at Sevenoaks in Kent, though her surviving correspondence to the Commonwealth Fund suggests that the couple were still travelling to Europe regularly so that Peter could attend various ‘conferences’.

[Note, the St Andrews Library currently has her surname spelled with a -P-, but it is clear from her PhD thesis that she spelled it as ‘Thomson’]

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