Culture Food

Sweet, Sweet Chemistry

We celebrate the life of a scientist with a sweet tooth.

For some time, I’ve been fascinated by Ida Freund and her ‘periodic table of cupcakes’. These small cakes – decorated, unsurprisingly, with the elements of the periodic table – make regular appearances at public science events, like the launch of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘175 Faces of Chemistry’ exhibition a few years back; and they once even featured on The Great British Bake Off. But I think they – and she – should be far more renowned.

A few years ago, well after the cupcake trend had peaked and passed, I was reading about these ubiquitous little confections, thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything interesting to learn, when Freund’s name appeared in a footnote. She was Britain’s first female chemistry lecturer in the late 19th-early 20th century, and the first to use food as a teaching aid. One of her students later described them as: ‘a very large board with the [periodic] table set out… The divisions across and down were made with Edinburgh Rock, numbers were made of chocolate, and the elements were iced cakes, each showing its name and atomic weight in icing.’

Born in Austria in 1863, Ida moved to England to stay with her uncle, a renowned violinist named Ludwig Straus, who sent her to Girton, the University of Cambridge’s first college for women. At 23, she graduated with first-class honours in the Natural Sciences Tripos course. This was a remarkable achievement, particularly as Freund’s grasp of English was elementary; she also had a significant physical disability, having lost a leg in a cycling accident in her youth; and she inevitably faced many hurdles in the male-dominated world of science education.

After graduating, she was first appointed chemistry lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women. Within a year, in 1887, she joined Newnham College as a ‘demonstrator’ (junior teacher) in chemistry. After three years she was promoted to lecturer, the first woman to hold such a position in the UK.

At this point she had to leave Cambridge to return to London to look after her ailing uncle, and to have a remaining part of her leg amputated. Three years later, though, in 1893, she was back in Cambridge; and later, she also travelled around Europe.

Freund’s return was accompanied by a succession of walking sticks and a snazzy new wheelchair, and she stood out by dressing in flamboyant clothes. She was a formidable, no-nonsense figure who experimented with various teaching techniques considered radical at the time. There are many anecdotal accounts found in A Newnham Anthology, a book about life at the college. One former student recalls, ‘Miss Freund reigned supreme… She was a great character.’ Another explains how the periodic table of cupcakes came about:

‘Every year before the Tripos examination [Freund] would summon her Chemistry students. In 1907 she urged them to go to a lab. They found large boxes of lovely chocolates with a different life-history and picture of some famous chemist in each. In my year we were requested to go and make a further study of the Periodic Table, which was the one made up of cupcakes.’

A supporter of the women’s suffragette movement, she was a prominent figure in the fight for the right of women to join the Chemical Society. Women were eventually allowed membership in 1920; but sadly, Freund died in 1914 following an operation before she could enjoy the fruits of her labour.

During her academic life, she wrote one paper and two chemistry textbooks, of which The Experimental Basis of Chemistry was published posthumously. After her death, various memorial funds and prizes, plus a teaching fellowship, were set up in her name; a teaching room at Cambridge was also named after her, as was a gas measuring tube (now no longer in use) that she had invented.

As someone with a keen interest in British food history (and a greedy appetite for cakes), I have often wondered what Freund’s cupcakes were like. Her student referred to them as individual iced cakes, which in turn has been erroneously translated as ‘cupcakes’ in modern textbooks. The term ‘cupcake’ would not have been in common usage in England at the time, so what kind of cakes were they really? What did they look and taste like? Would she have applied natural or artificial colours to the icing? Did she learn the recipes from her grandmother, or from popular cookbooks of the day?

I asked Dr Neil Buttery, a historian of British food, who speculated that they must have been fairy cakes: ‘They are considered the UK equivalent, even though they are not really the same thing.’ British food historian Ivan Day confirms in a series of blog posts that America ‘is the true home of the cupcake.’ In England, it would have been known as queen cake. He writes that this was ‘a much older type of cake… Queen cakes were traditionally baked in tin pans which were made in a great variety of shapes’ such as hearts, diamonds and crescents.

Tinsmiths were still producing the moulds for queen cakes in the early 20th century, though they were expensive and it was common to bake small cakes in teacups instead. By this point, it had become fashionable to decorate the tops of the cakes in the style of French petits fours, originally dainty little icing-enrobed sponge cakes served in what Day refers to as ‘paper cases.’ So Freund’s cakes were most likely to be either queen cakes or fairy cakes – the terms are often used interchangeably in modern times, so we don’t know for sure.

I wanted to see if I could dig up some memories of Ida Freund in the archives, so I visited London’s Feminist Library to find out more, but she wasn’t even featured in historical tomes with titles like Women and Education and Women and Science, and the librarians there had never heard of her. In the post lockdown world, when many parents have woken up to the daily struggles that teachers face, and university departments are busy slashing science subjects due to budget cuts, the story of a radical cake-baking chemistry lecturer deserves to be better known. Why hasn’t there been so much as a Google doodle of Ida Freund and her periodic table of cupcakes?

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