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Esther Simpson Display

During the week of International Women's Day explore this special display and discover University of Leeds alumnus Esther Simpson, a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to helping others.

Esther Simpson was a remarkable woman who made a significant impact in her lifetime, assisting hundreds of scholars fleeing persecution across the world.

Born in Leeds in 1903, Esther Simpson was a University of Leeds alumnus, graduating with first class honours in French and German in 1924. From 1925–1933 she worked in various posts in Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland, before returning to London in 1933 to begin a post as assistant secretary of the Academic Assistance Council (AAC), an organisation that helped scholars fleeing totalitarian regimes to find employment.

She was promoted to administrator and later executive assistant of the AAC, which was renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) in the 1940s. Her work included processing refugees’ application forms and searching for suitable academic posts. From 1944 –1966 she worked as assistant secretary for the Society for Visiting Scientists, and volunteered for the SPSL from 1951.

Many of the refugees Esther Simpson helped achieved great professional distinction and received honours including Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, Fellowships of the British Academy and knighthoods. Many also became her personal friends. Letters in the Esther Simpson collection reflect long friendships with scholars and their families.

On her retirement in 1966, her former SPSL colleague Sir Walter Adams wrote to her saying “Yours was a truly personal success, the giving of yourself and your friendship unstintingly in a way that literally changed the cultural history of the world.”

Discover more about Esther Simpson through objects in our collection in this special display.

A portrait of Esther Simpson.
A portrait of Esther Simpson.
A portrait of Esther Simpson.