An eminent female academic at the IOE: Clotilde von Wyss (1871-1938)
By Nazlin Bhimani, on 10 August 2018
I have been doing some research on some of the women teacher trainers at the IOE in order to understand their contribution to pedagogical practice in London during the interwar years. One of the teacher trainers I have been most intrigued with is the relatively unknown Clotilde von Wyss. Von Wyss taught at the London Day Training College (which became the Institute of Education, University of London in 1932), from 1903 to 1936. The following presents a mere glimpse into her contributions to pedagogical practice during the early 20th century.
As was typical in the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, most women became qualified teachers in order to have a professional career, and many women remained unmarried in order to retain their independence. Many women teachers progressed in their careers by taking up headships and some, mainly the ‘intellectually gifted women’ from the middle classes, went into teaching in higher education. Von Wyss followed this path and trained as a teacher at Maria Grey College, Brondesbury and gained a distinction in her Cambridge Teachers’ Certificate. Prior to her appointment at the London Day Training College (LDTC), von Wyss taught at various schools including St. George’s High School in Edinburgh from 1894 to 1897. During this time, she was also an external student at the Heriot-Watt College where she took classes with the distinguished naturalist Sir Arthur Thomson.
From 1897 to 1900 she taught biology at her old school, North London Collegiate, after which she took up a lectureship at the Cambridge Training College. In 1903, she began to work on a part-time basis at the London Day Training College (LDTC) where she taught biology, hygiene, nature study, art and handicraft. She was soon appointed as a full-time member of staff supporting the Mistress of Method and Vice-Principal, Margaret Punnett (another eminent female academic), with the welfare of the women students.
Von Wyss’s pedagogical contributions are significant. The 1929 issue of the student magazine, The Londinian, reviews the annual biological exhibition which von Wyss organised and provides evidence of novel teaching methods including the use of visual illustrations, objects, story-telling and peer-learning to communicate complex concepts. Her students presented these concepts to other students using the items on display, which included a dissected cat, the digestive organs of a rabbit, and a frog which was used to detect a heartbeat. There was also a section where the students learnt about amoeba and another which focused on genetics or the ‘principles of heredity’ and the role played by chromosomes:
Miss Gascoyne … was demonstrating the principles of heredity by means of charts…[and the] story of the black gentleman cat who married a sandy lady cat was touching in the extreme. How he longed for his little boys to be tortoiseshell, something like him and his dear wife! But they never could. That distinction was confined to the girls of the family. And all because of a wretched chromosome with a hook in it!
She was a progressive educationalist and expected the trainee teachers to demonstrate aspects of child-centred learning in their teaching practice. Her written comments on her observations of student teachers’ classroom teaching practice are held in the IOE’s archive. They give a sense of what she considered to be the necessary characteristics for a teacher and ‘good’ teaching. Of utmost importance was for teachers to understand the world of the child so that they could see things from the child’s perspective. She was critical of students who derived teaching material from textbooks, particularly if they imparted it in a mechanical way. She wanted the subject to come alive for the child and recommended first-hand observations.
Von Wyss was also known for her innovative use of new technology in the creation of audio-visual learning materials – two letters from the mid-1930s confirm the arrangements she made for showing the film ‘Wood Ant’ at the Autumn meeting of the School Nature Study Union at County Hall and later at the LDTC in which ‘her ants’ which she had nurtured for the students to observe were featured.Her lessons for the BBC’s Broadcasts to Schools made a profound influence on science teachers throughout the country. Many teachers used her biology and nature studies textbooks which contain her own illustrations.
Von Wyss built up a reputation as a formidable naturalist. Her editorship of the School Nature Study Journal, in which the educational merits of nature study, a syllabus for the subject and the appropriate teaching methods were discussed. She had the backing of such influential people as L.C. Miall who was Professor of biology at a Yorkshire College (later part of the University of Leeds), J. Arthur Thompson, the renowned naturalist under whom von Wyss studied in Edinburgh, the writer H. G. Wells, C. W. Kimmins who was the Chief Inspector of the London County Council, and Sir Percy Nunn who was director of the LDTC/IOE during von Wyss’s tenure and who also chaired the Union from 1905 to 1910.
Her contributions to the study of science were acknowledged publicly when in 1914, she was appointed Fellow of the prestigious Linnean Society.  She also was a member of the textbook selection Committee at the London County Council Committee and assessed nature study and hygiene courses at other teaching colleges. Her obituary in Nature describes her as a ‘brilliant and inspiring teacher’ whose students ‘went out to teach with a feeling of power and confidence’ and ‘teachers of many years standing still remember her with affection and gratitude’. She ‘never lost sight of the interdependences of theory and practice’ and ‘like all true teachers, she was also continually a learner’. 
Given this, how can we ensure that women academics such as von Wyss (and Margaret Punnett, Susan Isaacs, Marion Richardson, and Geraldine Montmorency,), do not remain hidden? One suggestion is to name one of the recently refurbished rooms at the IOE after them. I can quite easily imagine walking into ‘The Clotilde von Wyss Lecture Theatre’. Their names would certainly arouse curiosity and may even result in further research.
 Apart from E. W. Jenkins’ work on The Nature Study Movement(1981) in which he introduces von Wyss, Richard Aldrich’s biographical introduction to her in his Centenary History of the Institute of Education(2002), and some passing references to von Wyss, there is little of significance with respect to a study of her pedagogical practice.