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June-August 2022

Women, the world’s first chemists

Throughout human existence, women have made amazing contributions to chemistry.  Jenny Sharwood describes some of their challenges and achievements, and shares some stories of her own.

Aboriginal Australians are the oldest civilisation on Earth. Traditionally, in all Aboriginal Australian groups, the women have had crucial roles. They discovered a range of medicines and how to extract them from plants, including painkillers, anticancer treatments and healing ointments. They worked out how to remove poisons from highly toxic plants to obtain a valuable food source. They were the givers of life, the suppliers of most of the food and other resources, and the healers of their societies. Accordingly, they held respected positions within their groups.

Long after Aboriginal people settled in Australia, in early civilisations – including those in India, Tibet, Egypt, Afghanistan and China – people mined and processed many of the natural resources to produce things they needed and things they desired: weapons, tools that included mortars and pestles, containers, food preservatives, jewellery, dyes for fabrics, cosmetics and perfumes. This involved a lot of experimentation.

According to the fascinating book Hypatia’s heritage, it was mostly the women who were at the forefront of all this experimentation and processing, while the men were more occupied with hunting and building. Also, women were usually the physicians and surgeons and discovered the medicinal properties of various plants, oils, minerals and metals.

So it was the women, first and foremost, who were the world’s first chemists. They invented and built equipment, and they discovered how to extract, break down, separate and purify substances. Women are also said to have had a prime role in the founding of alchemy, the earliest form of chemistry. It is likely this began when it was observed that fire could transform substances into new substances.

Unfortunately, true alchemists were often misjudged and even persecuted because their reputation was tainted by the actions of unscrupulous people who posed as alchemists. But true alchemists discovered much of our valuable chemical and medical knowledge, and developed many of our widely used laboratory techniques.

A great blow to women in chemistry in those early years was the assertion of Greek philosopher Aristotle that females are merely ‘deformed’ males. This was published in his very influential work on embryology, De Generatione Animalium, based on his conclusions after dissecting hundreds of animal species.

Aristotle firmly believed that all matter is made up of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and vehemently opposed the theory proposed around 500 BCE by the Greek philosopher Leucippus, and later by his student Democritus, that matter is made of atoms.

Unfortunately, when these theories of Aristotle were brought to Europe in about the 12th and 13th centuries, they were embraced by the churches as having an almost divine authority. Those who opposed them were prosecuted. This was the Dark Ages for Western chemistry.

Despite all that, at least one French alchemist, Marie Meurdrac, dedicated herself to her research work. In 1666, she published her first report on all her discoveries. She described laboratory apparatus she had invented and laboratory techniques she had developed. Her report displayed tables of atomic weights of various substances, the results of her experiments on metals and instructions on how to prepare a number of medicines and cosmetics.

Fortunately, thanks to Robert Boyle’s questioning of some of Aristotle’s ideas, there was an increased questioning of the assumptions behind his theories. It was realised that theories must be backed by experimental evidence. This was the start of the age of enlightenment and the adoption of the scientific method.

After oxygen was discovered in 1774 and hydrogen in 1781, quantitative experiments on the combustion of hydrogen conducted by both Antoine and Marie Lavoisier led them to conclude the four-element theory could not be correct. They also were able to explain what combustion actually involved.

Marie played an integral part in all of Antoine’s research work after marrying him at the age of 14. Antoine was 28 when they were married. Fortunately for both Marie and for chemistry, Antoine realised straight away that his bride was highly gifted and, unlike many men of that time, he gave her every opportunity to make the most of her gifts. With his encouragement, she quickly proved that she was a very talented scientist, linguist and artist. She learned English and Latin so that she could translate important documents into French for Antoine, and soon was annotating these with her own comments. She collaborated with him in designing, performing and recording their experiments, translated their reports into other languages and drew their technical drawings with great accuracy and skill.

Marie turned their home into a popular scientific meeting place, taking part in all of the discussions and debates. Their learned guests were very impressed by her.

After conducting some brilliantly designed experiments, the Lavoisiers wrote the first modern chemistry textbook, Elements of chemistry, which was published in 1789.

Despite Marie Lavoisier’s outstanding contribution, most men of science did not appreciate the role of many women scientists, who often worked without support and acknowledgment. Indeed, men often did their utmost to limit what women scientists could achieve, treated them poorly and even took credit for their work.

One such story is that of Lise Meitner, a young Jewish girl who lived in Vienna in the late 1800s. Fortunately, her parents valued education very highly. At that time, girls were not allowed to study beyond primary school, so Lise’s parents engaged a private tutor to teach her. Then in 1901, the Austrian Government opened universities to women and Lise enrolled to study her two great passions – physics and mathematics. Soon she had to deal with male prejudices, with some male professors refusing to have a female in their class. Despite that, she persisted and received her doctorate in 1906.

At the time, the only jobs available for female physicists in Austria were teaching or tutoring, so Lise moved to Berlin to further her studies in the new exciting field of radioactivity. There she was forced to work in an old carpentry workshop in the basement because the male laboratory supervisor would not allow a female to work in the official laboratory alongside male researchers. Then, just before World War 2 broke out, she had to leave Germany secretly and in haste because she was Jewish.

Lise found refuge in Sweden, where she continued her work on nuclear radiation. As part of her research, she pioneered the use of the Geiger counter. Lise also furthered the work of another scientist, Enrico Fermi, some of whose experiments were then repeated at her request by a former German colleague, Otto Hahn. Neither Enrico nor Otto could explain the results they obtained. It was Lise who was able to analyse and explain the results and in doing so she discovered the process of nuclear fission. She even calculated the energy released in the process. But over that war period she was not permitted to put her name on any of papers she wrote, and the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Otto Hahn instead.

Eventually Lise’s work was recognised. She received a number of awards and became professor of physics at the University of Berlin. In 1992, the newly discovered element 109 was named meitnerium, symbol Mt, in her honour, recognising her as one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.

Another story is that of Cecilia Payne, a British-born American astronomer and astrophysicist who proposed in her 1925 doctoral thesis that stars are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. She also discovered what the Sun is made of.

Henry Norris Russell, a fellow astronomer, is usually given credit for discovering that the Sun’s composition is different from Earth’s, but he came to his conclusions four years later than Cecilia, after telling her not to publish.

After dealing with prejudices and barriers, Cecilia was the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within Harvard, and is often credited with breaking the glass ceiling for women in the Harvard science department and in astronomy and inspiring entire generations of women to take up science.

A third story is that of Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant and dedicated X-ray crystallographer. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick burst into a pub in Cambridge, England, and announced they had worked out the structure of DNA. Today, many people mistakenly think they were the ones who made this discovery, especially as they were awarded a Nobel Prize for it.

Several biochemists had already deduced that hereditary material consisted of nucleic acids and that there were two possible base pairs. Moreover. the chemist Linus Pauling had discovered from experiments, including using X-ray crystallography, that many protein molecules have a spiral shape.

By this time, Rosalind Franklin had pioneered the technique of using X-rays to determine the position of atoms in complex organic molecules. In 1952, Rosalind managed to obtain clear X-rays of the DNA molecule, a great achievement because DNA was very hard to isolate in a form suitable for taking X-rays. When she analysed her results, she realised that DNA is in the shape of a double helix, and its two strands consist of alternating sugar and phosphate groups.

While Rosalind was refining her results for publication, and without her permission, one of her male colleagues secretly passed her key findings and X-rays on to Watson and Crick, who used them and other evidence from scientists across the world to build their model of DNA. They had not performed any experiments themselves.

Tragically, by the time Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, Rosalind had died from cancer at the age of 37. It is likely this was due to her exposure to all the radiation. Sadly, unlike Lise Meitner and Cecelia Payne, Rosalind Franklin was never given the credit for the pivotal role she played.

Today, there are many women researchers who have made very important discoveries in many branches of both pure and applied chemistry. There are many women who are dedicated chemistry educators. And there are many girls who are studying science and dreaming of becoming famous scientists one day. They all deserve our encouragement, support and respect. To limit them in some way is to limit all that science can achieve.

Jenny Sharwood OAM, MACE, FAIE, FRACI CChem is a chemistry education consultant and writer. This article has been adapted from a presentation she gave to a global breakfast attended by chemistry educators across India to celebrate the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 17 February.

... a little of my own story

I still vividly remember the moment that decided the direction I would take in my academic studies in Years 11 and 12.

We were only given a choice between humanities, science and commerce. I had just told my Year 10 History teacher I was thinking of doing science. ‘Girls don’t do science!’ he roared. My respect for my hitherto outstanding teacher was shattered in one blow. All that he achieved was to make me determined to prove him wrong. And so I was the first girl in the school to choose to study science.

Sadly, at that time many girls were forced by their parents to leave the day they turned 14, though some chose that for themselves. Many parents believed that girls did not need much education because they would ‘only get married and have children’. The loss of both girls and boys continued after that. When I started high school in 1957, there were roughly 100 girls and 100 boys starting at the same time. By the time I reached Year 12, there were only 10 girls and about 30 boys left.

When I started at the University of Melbourne, there were very few women in my honours chemistry course. Unfortunately, some of the men in that course were very unkind, and even bullies. I remember my first-year partner for practical work scoffing when the lab staff told him that I was to be his partner, saying loudly to the students around us ‘What, do I have to work with a girl?’ So I kept quiet and worked even harder.

But it concerned me then and still does that many boys and young men have not learned to respect girls or women or to recognise and appreciate their abilities. And it concerns me greatly that so many other boys and men stand by and say nothing, which implies they approve of this behaviour, instead of telling them that it is unacceptable. It takes great courage to stand up for what is right!

The other barrier faced by so many girls and women is social and economic injustice. When I completed the third year of the four-year honours chemistry course, the highly respected female senior lecturer Dr Joan Radford encouraged me to go further with my studies. Dr Radford wrote to the state education department to ask for an exemption from my studentship conditions so that I could continue my studies.

Unfortunately, its bureaucrats, who probably were all male, refused, despite the fact I achieved very high marks. In fact I was equal first in the class in second year honours chemistry and second in the class in third year honours chemistry. They said if I decided to go on, I would have to pay back all my fees and allowances for the three years I had completed. Given my parents’ situation, I had no choice but to comply.

And so it was that I completed my teacher training and began teaching, to meet the terms of the studentship. When I did, my salary was way below that of my male counterparts, even those with fewer qualifications, simply because I was female.

I am sorry to say that the situation has not changed greatly in Australia. Even today, it has been found that on average women earn about 25% less than males in the same field. And far fewer women than men go on to complete higher degrees after achieving success in their first degree. I shudder to think of all the fine minds and talent that have been lost to our society, the discoveries and inventions not made …

I decided I would not let these injustices limit who I was and what I could achieve. As well as my teaching I set about trying to help young women in particular learn how to be effective, just and compassionate leaders. I initiated and convened a number of student leadership events for girls at the University of Melbourne, which included overnight stays at the university, as well as a residential national conference on poverty and statewide conferences on other social justice issues, such as racism and refugees, for both girls and boys.

If our society is to mature, then teachers can play a crucial role in teaching young people to respect others, show kindness and compassion, behave with dignity and integrity and uphold and defend the core values of our society. Teachers are the ones in close day-to-day contact with our next generation – our future leaders, doctors, scientists, inventors, engineers, judges, builders, manufacturers, thinkers and writers. Teachers are the ones who plant the seeds they need to grow. We nurture our students and foster a love of learning and a belief in their own abilities and sense of worth.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan, New York City

Portrait of M. and Mme Lavoisier by Jacques-Louis David, 1788.  

CA Briggs/Smithsonian Institution

Lise Meitner at the Catholic University in Washington, DC in 1946.

Smithsonian Institution @ Flickr Commons

Cecilia Payne.

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Rosalind Franklin, 1955.

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