Edith Johnston PhD (1930-2008)

Manon Williams
Saturday 24 July 2021

Edith Mary Johnston, MA 1951 PhD 1956 (later, Mrs Liik)

Head and shoulders photo of dark-haired woman, Edith Johnston
Edith Johnston-Liik (from Shirley Kelly, “‘Researchers Couldn’t Be Sure of a Job over a Year’—Edith Johnston-Liik on a Half-Century Project,” Books Ireland, no. 250, 2002, p. 153.)

As far as we know, Edith Mary Johnston (1930-2008) was the first female St. Andrews PhD historian to go on to an academic career.  Born in Belfast, in 1930 to John Worthington-Johnston and Mary Isobel Giraud. She was educated at Richmond Lodge School and Victoria College, which is one of the longest established girls’ schools in the British Isles. Despite disruptions to her education due to wartime bombing, she went on to study her undergraduate degree at the University of St. Andrews.

 Alongside studies in History, Edith also studied Philosophy and Latin. She graduated with first class honours in Medieval and Modern History in 1951. Edith went on to pursue a PhD at the University of St. Andrews, specialising in Irish political history. In the acknowledgements of her published works, she notes that it was her PhD supervisor Professor Norman Gash that ‘pointed’ her towards Irish history. Edith completed her PhD in 1956, with a thesis entitled ‘The Government of Ireland 1767-85: A study in Anglo-Irish Political Administration’. This thesis was later developed into the book, Great Britain and Ireland 1760-1800: a study in political administration which was published in the series of University Publications by the University of St Andrews in 1963.

After completing her PhD, Edith went on to gain a Dip.Ed. from Queens University Belfast.

In 1956, Edith was appointed as an assistant lecturer at the University of Sheffield. She taught at Sheffield for twenty years, becoming a lecturer in 1958 and then senior lecturer in 1965. In 1969, Edith was asked to become the Warden for Tapton Hall of Residence. Balancing her pastoral duties alongside an academic career was extremely challenging and so Edith stopped her Warden duties in 1971. Alongside her position at Sheffield, Edith also held visiting posts at institutions such as the University of Michigan, Queens University (Ontario) and the University of Delaware.  In 1976, Edith took up the position of Chair of Modern History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Austalia. She remained at Macquarie until she took early retirement after a spell of illness in 1993.  

Over the course of her career, Edith published many works including Ireland in the eighteenth century (1974) as well as multiple articles in Irish historical Studies and The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Alongside her works on Irish history, Edith, her husband and fellow historian, George Liik, and Robert G. Ward published, A Measure of Greatness: The Origins of the Australian Iron and Steel Industry (1998). This highlights the diversity of Edith’s knowledge and capabilities. Her long-term aim was however to produce a history of the Irish parliament that was similar in scope to the British History of Parliament.

History of the Irish Parliament 1692-1800: commons, constituencies and statutes by Edith Mary Johnston-Liik.                                

After her retirement, Edith and George moved back to Ireland. Retirement gave Edith plenty of time to conduct further historical research on the Irish parliament, but this was double edged as she became ineligible for many research grants. With the help of volunteers, and with some financial assistance in the form of a grant from the Irish government in 1999, Edith was able to complete her most ambitious work: In 2002, the monumental, six-volume work, The History of the Irish Parliament 1692-1800 was published. During her retirement, Edith also assisted on the Board of Editors for the Dictionary of Irish Biography project. Unfortunately, she did not live to see its publication in November 2009.  

Edith Johnston died on the 25th of February 2008. While she was the first female St. Andrews PhD student to go on to an academic career, she would certainly not be the last.   


  • University of St Andrews Calendars  
  • Kelly, Shirley. “‘Researchers Couldn’t Be Sure of a Job over a Year’—Edith Johnston-Liik on a Half-Century Project.” Books Ireland, no. 250, 2002, pp. 153–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20632419.  
  • Johnston, Edith. ‘Great Britain and Ireland 1760-1800’ a study in political administration (Oliver and Boyd 1963) – acknowledgements and author biography 
  • Johnston, Edith. MPs in Dublin: Companion to the History of the Irish Parliament 1692-1800 (Ulster, 2006) – acknowledgements 
  • McGuire, James. “Johnston (Johnston-Liik), Edith Mary.” Dictionary of Irish Biography (June 2015): https://doi.org/10.3318/dib.009737.v1.

 This blog post was written by Isla Cartney, who was about to go into her fourth year studying for an MA in History.  

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