The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Ruth Louisa Cohen


by Natasha Lehrer

In Brief

Ruth Louisa Cohen was the first Jewish principal of an Oxbridge College, serving as Principal of her alma mater Newnham College from 1954 to 1972. Prior to her election as principal, Cohen had a prolific career as an agricultural economist, studying in the United States and serving the British Ministry of Food and Board of Trade during the Second World War. Her long tenure as Newnham College principal was characterized by engagement with many areas of college life, from academics, as lecturer in the economics department, to student and faculty life. Beyond her time at the College, Cohen was an adviser to several agricultural councils and committees and became deeply involved in the finance and development duties of local government as a member of the Labour party.

Ruth Cohen, Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1954 until 1972, was the first Jewish principal of an Oxbridge College, a distinguished agricultural economist, and, after her retirement from college life, a dedicated local councillor.

Early Life and Education

Born on November 10, 1906, to Walter Samuel Cohen, a barrister, and his wife Lucy Margaret (née Cobb), Ruth Cohen was one of five siblings who came from a family of formidable intellect and drive. Walter Cohen was vice-chairman of the Economic Board for Israel and Ruth’s brother Sir Andrew Cohen (1909–1968) was governor of Uganda from 1952 to 1956. It is noteworthy that although their mother was not Jewish both Ruth and Andrew considered themselves to be Jewish and were proud of their father’s heritage.

The family connections to Newnham College were strong; Lucy Cobb, Ruth Cohen’s mother, had studied mathematics at Newnham and her cousin Hannah Cohen was on the college council. Since 1948 the Newnham gates have borne the arms of the Cohen family, to commemorate the benefactions to the college of Hannah Floretta Cohen (an undergraduate at Newnham College from 1894 to 1897) and her father, Sir Benjamin Cohen Bt., grandfather of Ruth. Ruth went up to Newnham College as an undergraduate in 1926. In 1930 she took up a Commonwealth Fund fellowship in the United States, spending time at Stanford and Cornell universities for two years. When she returned to the UK she became a research officer at the Agricultural Economic Research Institute in Oxford. She remained in Oxford until 1939, when she returned to her alma mater, Newnham College, as a lecturer and Director of Studies in Economics. However she was almost immediately called away on war service to serve in London as an economist at the Ministry of Food, and later as a temporary civil servant at the Board of Trade. She returned to Cambridge in 1945, as a Cambridge University assistant lecturer and then a Lecturer in Economics, a post she held until 1972.

Tenure as Principal

In 1954 she was elected Principal of Newnham College. At the memorial meeting held after her death, it was said that this was “an inspired choice, for she had strong intellectual abilities, was intensely loyal to her College, had an unusually strong sense of public duty…and proved a dedicated Principal for almost two decades.” As Principal she was renowned for her total commitment to all areas of college life; not only was she concerned about the academic achievements of the students at the college but also about their general well-being; she was actively involved in fundraising for the college and participated in numerous college and university committees. Her warmth and generosity were a great asset in promoting the kind of informal principalship which was a hallmark of her time at Newnham. The range of her involvement with the college was impressive—she was not one to delegate, at almost any level. She was involved not only in the Governing Body but also the gardening committee (gardening was her passion); as likely to suggest inexpensive menus to the kitchen staff for college meals as to be involved in heated debates about university and college policy. She was also a tireless member of public bodies, including being a lay member of the General Medical Council, a member of the governing body of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an External Examiner of the University of Malaya. In 1962 she was elected Chair of the Ministry of Agriculture Committee for the Provincial Agricultural Advisory Service, a position which she held for several years. In 1969 she was awarded the CBE.

Public Service in Retirement

In 1972, after an unusually long principalship that lasted eighteen years, she retired from Newnham and went to live in France for a year before returning to Cambridge in 1973 to work for the Cambridge City Council as a Labour Councillor. When Labour took over the council in 1980 she chaired the Finance Committee and was a member of the Development Control Sub-committee, for which she visited sites of all the planning applications coming up for decision, even after becoming increasingly disabled from the peripheral neuropathy which greatly affected her active independence towards the latter part of her life. In 1987 she retired from the Council.

Ruth Cohen died on July 27, 1991, suddenly, while watching the Test Match at home, at the time when the progress of her illness was beginning to threaten her independence. As Ann Phillips, a colleague at Newnham, said in an appreciation of her life, “it is hard not to look upon this as her final piece of excellent judgement.”

Selected Works

Cohen, Ruth L. and K.A.H. Murray. The Planning of Britain’s Food Imports: A quantitative study of the effects of recent legislation. Oxford: National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, 1934. Supplements 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938. 

Cohen, Ruth L. and K.A.H. Murray. The effect of butter and cheese supplies on ‘surplus’ milk prices. Oxford: Agricultural Economics Research Institute, 1933.

Cohen, Ruth L. and Cook, Pauline L. Effects of Mergers: Six studies. London: Allen & Unwin, 1958.

A survey of milk marketing schemes and price policies. Cambridge: University of Cambridge School of Agriculture, 1933.

Factors affecting the price and production of potatoes in Great Britain. Cambridge: W. Heffner & Sons, 1930.

The history of milk prices; an analysis of the factors affecting the prices of milk and milk products. Oxford: Agricultural Economics Research Institute, 1936. 

The Economics of Agriculture. London: Nisbet, 1940. 

Survey of national measures for controlling farm prices in Western European countries. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1953. 


Edmonds, Sheila M. “Economist with milky vision.” The Guardian. August 3, 1991.

Johnson, Harry. “Ruth Cohen: A Neglected Contributor to Contemporary Capital Theory.” In The Shadow of Keynes: Understanding Keynes, Cambridge, and Keynesian Economics. Edited by Elizabeth S. Johnson and Harry Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. 

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How to cite this page

Lehrer, Natasha. "Ruth Louisa Cohen." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 29, 2023) <>.