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Women in Science: Chemistry

What is Chemistry?

Falling under the category of Natural Science, chemistry covers subjects such as:  
Acid–base chemistry, Analytical chemistry, Astrochemistry, Biochemistry, Crystallography, Chemical engineering, Environmental chemistry, Food science, Geochemistry, Green chemistry, Organic & Inorganic chemistry, Materials science, Metallurgy, Molecular physics, Nuclear chemistry, Photochemistry, Physical chemistry, Radiochemistry, and Theoretical chemistry.

To learn more about women chemists, you can browse our catalog for books, or check out the examples below! 

Rosalind Franklin

Born: July 25, 1920
Died: April 16, 1958

Rosalind Franklin was able to start her path towards becoming a scientist at an early age, attending one of London's few girls’ schools that taught physics and chemistry. After passing the examination for admission to Cambridge University in 1938, however, she was met with opposition from her father, who didn’t believe in university education for women, a foreshadowing of the various prejudices and difficulties Rosalind would meet throughout her career. Fortunately, thanks to the insistence of her aunt and mother, her father finally conceded, and she enrolled in Newnham College, Cambridge. After graduating in 1941, she immediately started on her doctorate, focusing her research on a crucial wartime problem: coal, charcoal, and how to use the substances efficiently. Before she was 26 years old, she had published five papers on the subject, and is still referenced to this day. Her early work helped launch the modern field of high-strength carbon fibers. In 1945, at just 26, she’d completed her PhD, and began working in x-ray diffraction, pioneering the use of this method to analyze complex, unorganized matter, such as larger biological molecules, instead of single crystals.

After completing her education at Cambridge, she moved to Paris, working at the Laboratoire Central des Services CHimiques de L’Etat for three years. Here, she learned various x-ray diffraction techniques, and returned to King’s College in London as a research associate in John Randall’s laboratory. It was here that she crossed paths with Maurice Wilkins. Franklin & Wilkins were both in charge of separate research groups and projects, although both were centered around DNA. When Randall gave Rosalin responsibility over her project, Wilkins was away on vacation, and upon his return, there was misunderstanding of her role in the research. He automatically assumed she was a technical assistant, when they were actually peers. While his mistake was acknowledged, the attitude towards Franklin was never changed (something that isn’t surprising giving the climate towards women at universities during that time). Despite her treatment, Rosalind continued on her DNA project, making marked advances in x-ray diffraction techniques. J.D. Bernal, for example, called her x-ray photographs of DNA were called “the most beautiful x-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” By continuously adjusting her equipment, she was able to extract finer DNA fibers than ever before, and arrange them in parallel bundles while studying their reactions to humid conditions. Because of these observations, she came extremely close to solving the DNA structure between 1951 and 1953, however she was beaten to publication due to the friction between Wilkins and herself. Wilkins, unbeknownst to her, had shown some of her work to James Watson & Francis Crick, both at Cambridge, and it was because of this, that they were able to publish the proposed DNA structure in 1953, eventually gaining a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work.

Because of her constant strained relationship with Wilkins and the toxic environment of King’s College for women, she left to head a research group at Birkbeck College in London. However, prior to her departure, the head of King’s College made her agree that she wouldn’t continue her work on DNA. Franklin returned to her original research on coal, then moved on to viruses, eventually publishing seventeen papers in five years, her group’s findings laying the foundation for structural virology.

Rosalind Franklin continued to work and research up until a few weeks before her death due to ovarian cancer in 1958, at the age of 37.

 

If you want to learn more about Rosalind Franklin and her work, check out these books in our collections. 

Marie Curie

Born: November, 7, 1867
Died: July 4, 1934

 

Born in Warsaw to a secondary-school teacher, Marie Curie, née Marie Sklodowska was able to receive a general education and scientific training from the local schools during her formative years. As she got older, she became involved with a student revolutionary organization, and decided it wise to move from the Russia-dominated part of Poland (which included Warsaw), to Cracow, which was under Austrian rule at the time.

1891 saw Marie moving to Paris in order to continue her scientific studies at the Sorbonne, eventually obtaining Licenciateships (a degree more common in Europe universities, ranking just below a doctor) in Physics & Mathematical Sciences. While continuing her studies, she met Pierre Curie, then, a Professor in the School of Physics, and in 1895, a year after they met, they were married. Marie succeeded Pierre as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne, and the two worked together, investigating radioactivity, their research building off of the German physicist Roentgen, and French physicist Becquerel (who discovered radioactivity in 1896). In July of 1898, they announced the discovery of a new element, polonium. Months later, at the end of the year, the scientists announced yet another new discovery: the element radium. In 1903, the Curies, along with Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, the same year Marie completed her Doctorate degree in Chemistry.

Following the sudden & tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906, Marie took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first woman to do so. She continued their work after his death, and received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911, in recognition of her work in radioactivity. Her research proved invaluable during World War I, Curie’s discoveries leading to the development of x-ray technology. Marie helped equip ambulances with x-ray equipment, many times, driving them to the front lines herself. As the head of the International Red Cross’s radiological service, she trained doctors and orderlies in the new equipment and techniques.

However, despite her success, she was met with great opposition from male scientists in the field: never receiving significant financial benefits from her work, struggling to work in poor laboratory conditions, and almost solely relying on her teaching position to make ends meet. By the 1920s, her health started to wane, developing leukemia from her work; the constant exposure to radiation had taken its toll. She passed on July 4, 1934, but her legacy lived on, both in her research and family: her eldest daughter, Irene, went on to also win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, whose work on natural & artificial radioactivity, nuclear physics, and later, neutrons on heavy elements, was an extremely important step in the discovery of uranium fission.

 

If you want to learn more about Marie Curie and her studies, check out these books in our collections.