From ‘Assistants’ to ‘Assistant Lecturers’

Manon Williams
Saturday 24 July 2021

In the early twentieth century, there were few long-term jobs in academia: most departments had just one professor (or ‘chair’), and some had only a lecturer. For those hoping to embark on a career in a university, the entry point was often being appointed as ‘assistant’ to the professor (or lecturer). These roles were, however, subject to annual renewal, and, (at St Andrews, prior to 1964), did not automatically lead to appointment to lecturer. Some women spent years, or decades, in these precarious roles.

Historian of education, Robert Anderson explains that the role of ‘assistant’ offered recent graduates with valuable financial support for ongoing study and research (at a time when postgraduate, or postdoctoral, research fellowships were rare, especially in the humanities). And it could provide the fundamental first step into professional history. But it could equally be a short-term appointment, or the start of a series of precarious short-term appointments. During the First World War, increased reliance on temporary assistants led to efforts to regularise their conditions of employment, and to the creation of the Association of University Teachers in 1919.

We believe that the first woman to teach History formally in the University was Janet Low, who was appointed as a temporary assistant during the First World War. The University was struggling to cover its teaching needs due to staff absences on national service. The University Calendar for academic year 1918-19 shows eight ‘temporary lecturers and assistants’ were ‘Acting in place of Members of Staff absent on Military or other National Service’. Of these, three were men (two of whom were local ministers drafted in to cover Hebrew and Church History, in St Mary’s College), and the rest were women – including Janet Low.

The university minutes first mention Janet Low in the session 1916-1917, when it was decided to apoint her for the following academic year, to cover some of the teaching of the absent lecturer John Mackie. The unusual circumstances of wartime perhaps explain both the number of women appointed as assistants, and also the decision to appoint a local woman who, although a graduate of the University, was neither a recent graduate (MA 1907) nor in fact a History graduate (Classics). Low’s appointment was continued for a second year, but once Mackie returned from the war, the need for a temporarly replacement disappeared. Apparently, History at St Andrews in 1919 only needed one member of staff.

In the following decades, that changed, as the department grew: it appears to have been recognised that covering the entire range of history from mediaeval times onwards, to four different year-groups of students, was more than a one-person task. By the mid-1920s, there were two staff (both male, one lecturer and one assistant); from 1929, those two staff became professor and lecturer.

And by the 1930s, there seemed to be enough work for four people: one professor, two lecturers, and one ‘assistant’. That ‘assistant’ was Doris Ketelbey, who had previously been a school-teacher, and also an author of a successful textbook of modern European history. Her interests complemented those of the other modernist, William Burn.

In contrast to Low’s explicitly temporary role to cover absence, Ketelbey’s role (and Burn’s original role) was as an additional junior member of staff. Her appointment was repeatedly renewed into and beyond the Second World War, and she eventually became Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer. For Ketelbey, the ‘assistant’ role was indeed an entry point to academia, though it was far from guaranteed.

In 1956, the appointment of Dr Margaret Lambert appears to be the first time when a woman was appointed to History in St Andrews without being appointed first as an ‘assistant’.

In 1964, the University of St Andrews formally replaced the term ‘assistant’ with that of ‘Assistant Lecturer’ (the two had been used interchangeably in the earlier period). Most importantly, the role of ‘Assistant Lecturer’ was redefined as a probationary period that would (if satisfactorily completed) lead to a more secure appointment: ‘The period of appointment of Assistant Lecturers will be for three years on probation, and they will be promoted to Lecturer at the end of that period if they have proved satisfactory. The duties of Assistant Lecturers will be the same as those of Lecturers.’ (Alumnus Chronicle June 1964, p.10).

‘Assistant Lecturers’ were now part of a defined career path, and no longer by definition temporary. That said, it was also possible to be a ‘temporary assistant lecturer’ or ‘temporary lecturer’.


Anderson, Robert, ‘The Development of History Teaching in the Scottish Universities 1894-1939’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, Vol.32 No.1 (2012), pp.50-73.  

Minutes of Meetings of the University Court and of the Business and Finance and Maintenance and Lands Committees, for the academical years: 1916-1917, 1917-1918, 1918-1919, 1919-1920.

This blog post originated as a pair of posts drafted, as part of the STEP2021 project, by Beth Sykes, who was then going into her fourth year studying French and Modern History; and by Alexandra Kenyon, then going into her fourth year studying International Relations at the University of St Andrews. It was revised in 2022 by Aileen Fyfe.

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