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THE ENTRY OF WOMEN INTO CHEMISTRY IN BRITAIN

laboratory chemical research science

Any amateur’s participation in science before 1800 was gained through public lectures, membership of an appropriate society, with its lectures and publications, and the availability of basic instruments and a home laboratory. lectures at the Royal Institution created a large new audience of potential scientists. Among them was , who found that she needed help in understanding the lectures and in following the discussions. With her husband, a physician and Fellow of the Royal Society whose hobby was chemistry, she lived among the scientific circle in London. She decided to share her new knowledge with others struggling to understand the public lectures, and Conversations on Chemistry (1805) was the result. This was an immense success both in Britain and in Europe and the USA, and went into 16 updated editions. Later, was to continue the explanation of science to amateurs with her very successful book The Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1835).

The great interest in science generated in the early 19th-c did not result in active participation by amateur female chemical scientists. Unlike those women interested in astronomy, the biological sciences or geology, who followed their own research and published in the appropriate journals of provincial and national scientific societies, there appear to be no papers submitted by women to the British scientific journals on chemical subjects before the entry of women into universities.

In Britain Elizabeth Fulhame, about whom little is known, appears to be the first female independent researcher in chemistry. Her interest began with a search for a method of depositing thin layers of metal on cloth and paper. She enthused over new theory of combustion and devised her own variation on it. Her ideas on combustion, although erroneous, show strange pre-echoes of modern Gaia theory: she wrote that her ideas ‘may serve to show how nature is always the same, and maintains her equilibrium by preserving the same quantities of air and water on the surface of our globe’. Her Essay on Combustion (1794) was reprinted in the USA in 1810 and she was elected an honorary member of the Philadelphia Chemical Society.

Access to laboratory materials may have been as difficult for the potential female chemists as was access to instruments for the female astronomers. was introduced to work in the laboratory as an assistant to her husband in much the same way as was introduced to the telescope as an assistant to her brother. Apart from her help to her husband in notetaking and translations, Marie Lavoisier rescued her husband’s papers from his killers, preventing their suppression or incorporation in others’ work, printed them at her own expense and presented them to eminent scientists around Europe.

Had her own well recorded struggles. Together with she was awarded a Nobel Prize for physics, and later the unshared Nobel Prize for chemistry. The possible applications of radium as a treatment for cancer as well as the value of X-rays and the novelty of a woman scientist made her a public figure and a source of encouragement for those women who wished for a scientific career.

The opening of universities to women in the later part of the 19th-c gave them the opportunity to work in a laboratory, but to gain an opening in the male-dominated world of research in physical science often required the assistance of men in the field. The biochemist provided research places for women in his biochemical laboratory in Cambridge, despite much criticism. In the 1920s and 1930s almost half the research places in his laboratory went to women. Not surprisingly, it was to his laboratory that the women trained in chemical science gravitated, as well as the biologists. Similarly, they went to the Cambridge laboratories of Sir Michael Foster (1836–1907), the physiologist, who provided research places and to the Cavendish (Cambridge physics) laboratories of AND , who also enabled women to find places. Another enabler was . The early women in chemical sciences tended to be in biological, physical and inorganic chemistry rather than organic chemistry. These early enablers may have had an influence in the flow of women into biological sciences. In the USA women at first researched mostly in applied analytical chemistry.

Many of the early British women biochemists went into teaching and the administration of the women’s colleges; the pressure to do so must have been great. One such was Marion Greenwood (1862–1932), who obtained Class 1 in both parts of the Cambridge Natural Sciences Tripos Examinations of 1882 and 1883 and became demonstrator in physiology at Newnham College, Cambridge. She researched in Foster’s physiology laboratory on the role played by acid in protozoan digestion, and became head of the women’s laboratory (the Balfour Laboratory) in 1890.

Eleanor Balfour Sidgwick (1845–1936) had an interest in mathematics, encouraged by her mother, and studied with her brother-in-law John Strutt (later ). She was also interested in education for women and in the new women’s colleges. She was first secretary to the principal of Newnham and assisted in the teaching there and became treasurer of the college 1876–1919, vice-principal in 1880 and principal 1892–1911. She never completed her studies at Cambridge, but in 1880 began research work with Rayleigh, who was then professor of experimental physics. She worked in electrochemistry and the result was published jointly in two papers in Philosophical Transactions .

Ida Freund (1863–1914) came to Britain from Vienna in 1881, studied at Girton College, Cambridge and gained a Class 1 in her examinations. She became lecturer in chemistry at Newnham College and ran the chemistry laboratory there despite being confined to a wheelchair, having lost a leg in a cycling accident in her youth. Her impact, however, was, like Jane Marcet’s, in science writing, but unlike Marcet not at a popular level. Her book The Study of Chemical Composition (1905) became a definitive classic in its area of chemical history.

Frances Mary Gore Micklethwait (1868–1950) was able to pursue a career in chemistry. At the age of 30 she became a student at the Royal College of Science (now Imperial College, London) and graduated in 1901. She carried out research there for the next 13 years at a time when it was difficult for a woman to do so. She worked mainly with Sir Gilbert Morgan (1870–1940), doing valuable work on diazo reactions and organo-arsenic compounds. Her work in the First World War was undisclosed, but was probably on explosives, and led to her MBE in 1919.

Rutherford said of : ‘next to Mme Curie she is the most pre-eminent woman physicist in the department of radioactivity’. She gained a first class honours degree in 1898 at McGill University, Montreal and joined Rutherford’s research group there. Her work led Rutherford and SODDY to the realization that a transmutation of one element to another had occurred; this entirely novel idea was central to the whole development of nuclear physics and chemistry.

One of the ‘Bragg pupils’, , is strictly a physicist but her contributions to chemistry (by X-ray diffraction methods) led to her becoming the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society, and professor of chemistry at University College London.

May Sybil Leslie (1887–1937) moved into industrial chemistry. She graduated with first class honours from the University of Leeds in 1908 and worked with Marie Curie in Paris and later with Rutherford in Manchester, where she continued research on thorium and actinium. During the First World War she worked in a war factory in Litherland (and later in North Wales), initially as a research chemist, but later as chemist in charge of the laboratory. This unusual position for a woman no doubt came about through the departure of the men to the war. Her work was on the chemical reactions involved in the formation of nitric acid and the best conditions for making it in large quantities for munitions.

Ida Smedley MacLean (1877–1944) attended the King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham, which had a high reputation for science and a number of Cambridge-trained staff. She was a student at Newnham and took her examinations in 1898. She worked on the chemistry and metabolism of fats at the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine in London and was one of the founders of the British Federation of University Women. She worked for the admission of women to the Chemical Society of London, which, like the Geological Society of London, had been slow in admitting them to its fellowship. She was the first woman to be elected in 1920.

Resistance to employing women in the chemical industry was forceful and prolonged. In the interwar years the number of posts in science-based industry was limited, and was further reduced by a long period of recession. In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that in chemistry (as in other professions and trades) a male workforce protected its job opportunities as best it could. The phrase ‘the already overcrowded state of the profession’ is recurrent in arguments rejecting the admission of women.

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