Margaret Gowing and British Nuclear History

Margaret Gowing and British Nuclear History: Reflections on her life, achievements, and legacy

LSE IDEAS-NATO-LSE Department of International History conference 

Margaret Gowing was an LSE alumna & leading nuclear historian, who wrote the groundbreaking official history of Britain & Atomic Energy.



Members of the Gowing family, NATO officials, civil servants, leading historians, & LSE students attended this one day conference to explore her personal and academic legacy. They discussed issues such as the patriotism of the British nuclear project and the role of official government histories.

Find out more about Margaret Gowing

Read the LSE History blog by Sue Donnelly.

LSE IDEAS Director Michael Cox on Margaret Gowing

Margaret Gowing (1921-1998) was probably one of the most significant women ever to have studied at the LSE. Arriving at the School from a working class background in 1938 she had the very great privilege - as she herself recognised – of being taught by some of the intellectual giants of the LSE including Lionel Robbins, von Hayek, R H Tawney, Ronald Coase, Vera Anstey, H L Beales, and above all Eileen Power who reignited her interest in economic history and history as a meaningful subject.

Graduating with a First in 1941 she first moved into the Civil Service for the duration of the war before being ‘spotted’ by the great Australian historian Keith Hancock who was then editing a massive series on Britain on the home front during WWII. Margaret not only wrote a wonderful study on the British War Economy with Hancock, but effectively went on to become one of the series editors. Working with Hancock also brought her into close contact with another author in the same series, Richard Titmuss, whose Problems of Social Policy really made his reputation and as a result secured him a Chair at the LSE.

Through the 1950s Margaret continued working in the Cabinet Office, but in 1959, secured a new position with the UK Atomic Energy Authority and set about transforming our understanding of the British nuclear programme with such monumental works as Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945 (1964) and its two-volume sequel, Independence and Deterrence (1974), written with the assistance of her friend and collaborator Lorna Arnold.

In all three volumes , she offered what one observer has termed “a characteristically clear-eyed account of the fashioning and implementation of British policy with regard to atomic energy from the outbreak of the war until October 1952”.

Her election first to the British Academy in 1975, and 13 years later to the Royal Society, recognised equally the quality and the breadth of her work and placed her, with Sir Karl Popper and Joseph Needham, and now Nick Stern of the LSE’s Grantham Institute, among the tiny handful of those who have been Fellows of both bodies.

Listen to recordings of the conference

Margaret Gowing: from the LSE to the Cabinet Office

Sue Donnelly, LSE archivist and Michael Cox, LSE IDEAS

Listen to from the LSE to the Cabinet Office

‘What shall we tell Mrs Gowing?’ Writing the Official History of Britain and atomic energy

Matthew Jones, LSE

Listen to 'What shall we tell Mrs Gowing?'

Independence and deterrence: Britain, nuclear weapons and the early Cold War

Richard Moore, Kings College London Centre for Science and Security

Listen to Independence and deterrence

Personal recollections

Nik Gowing and Nicholas Stern (with contributions from Roy MacLeod)

Listen to Personal recollections

Achievements, Memories and Legacies

David Edgerton, Lawrence Freedman, Peter Hennessy, David Holloway, and Richard Moore.

Listen to Achievements, Memories and Legacies