Pioneering Imperial academic among women engineers named in national biography

For nearly 30 years, Letitia Chitty was a member of the Civil Engineering Department and now features in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Chitty began her studies in mathematics at The University of Cambridge in 1916, but was inspired to switch to studying engineering after spending the war investigating experimental aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps (later RAF).

In 1934 Chitty was appointed as a research assistant in the Civil Engineering Department at Imperial and worked on solutions for plane stress problems and suspension cables. That same year, Chitty became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Chitty was appointed as a lecturer in civil engineering at Imperial in 1943 and during the Second World War investigated submarine hull stresses and underwater explosions. Her major work focused on dams and arches.

Anne Barrett, the College’s archivist who wrote Chitty’s entry, notes that Chitty appreciated good design, and “collaborated with creators of structures to ensure that a pleasing and serviceable structure resulted.”
Letitia Chitty was unique in all respects, a brilliant mathematician and structural engineer, known within Imperial as a highly regarded, if eccentric, member of College. Anne Barrett College archivist

Chitty was the first woman member of the Technical Committee of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and the first woman to be awarded the ICE’s Telford Gold Medal. She was fluent in seven languages, travelled widely, and was an accomplished artist.

Chitty retired from her lectureship at Imperial in 1962, but continued to visit the department and was made a fellow of the College in 1971.

The reading room in the Civil and Environmental Engineering library is named after Chitty, as is one of the department’s third-year undergraduate prizes , awarded to the student of greatest merit in third year. Chitty also features in Anne Barrett’s book about past and present women at the College, Women at Imperial College .

The recently published update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has a special focus on women in engineering and science, with this year being the government’s Year of Engineering. Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or Imperial College London.