Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Inspirational Women: Chemistry Edition

Every field of study has its neglected and maligned women. Rosalind Franklin is archetypal: her work led directly to the discovery of the structure of DNA, but she was subjected to institutional and personal sexism, and generally ignored by history. Dorothy Hodgkin was dismissed as an "Oxford housewife" by the Daily Mail upon receipt of the 1964 Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work on protein crystallography. And how many biochemistry students know that Menten, of Michaelis-Menten fame, was named Maud?

What about organic chemistry? Our field very easily falls prey to the "Great Men" scheme of history. Our history is one of male names. Think of landmark experiments: Wöhler's synthesis of urea; Robinson's biomimetic synthesis of tropinone; Miller's prebiotic synthesis of amino acids; Woodward's synthesis of... well, everything!

Even when we're not thinking of history, our language is. You could probably construct an alphabet of reactions named after men - from (Rolf) Appel to (Theodor) Zincke, via Roberts Bergman, Grubbs, and Shapiro. Even the Julia reaction is named for a man. The few exceptions that are named for women simply prove the rule. In the immortal words of Flo Rida, where dem girls at? (with apologies)

And so, we humbly present five inspiring women of chemistry. I've picked scientists who are either retired or deceased, whose work is important, and who have overcome the odds to succeed. Think I've unjustly overlooked your hero? Leave a comment and let me know!

Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
A legend of drug discovery, the importance of Elion’s work is self-evident. Her syntheses of purines and study of their biochemistry led to a number of firsts – including the first chemotherapy for leukaemia, the first immunosuppressant, and the first drug for herpes.  She received a share in the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, a number of honorary degrees, and senior positions in a list of organisations as long as your arm. Siddhartha Mukherjee describes her as “one of the most innovative synthetic chemists of her generation”. This extraordinary person overcame immense barriers to succeed.

Anyone seeking inspiration should read her autobiography on the Nobel site. An immigrant to the US, she was moved to study chemistry by her grandfather’s death from stomach cancer. As a grad student she held down a full-time teaching job while carrying out research at night and on weekends for two years. She earned an M.Sc., but abandoned her Ph.D. after several years in order to maintain her job. In her own words, “Years later, when I received three honorary doctorate degrees from George Washington University, Brown University and the University of Michigan, I decided that perhaps that decision had been the right one after all.”

Darshan Ranganathan (1941-2001)
The field of supramolecular chemistry would barely be the same without her pioneering work. She drew inspiration from nature to create chemical models of metabolism such as the urea cycle, and supramolecular assemblies of peptides capable of mimicking biological function. Her creations acted as synthetic ion channels and receptors, offering insight into the mechanisms of life. In addition to research, she was a great communicator of science, and regularly published Current Highlights in Organic Chemistry.

Despite her brilliance and an outstanding record, including a stint as a post-doc in Derek Barton’s lab, she was constantly held back by systematic sexism. She spent a long period of her career being consistently refused an academic position in her university on the grounds of gender, and because her husband also worked in the department. Late in life, she finally began to receive some of the recognition she had so thoroughly earned.

Irina Beletskaya (1933-)
Methodologist extraordinaire! Her work on novel metal catalysis, including the use of lanthanides, nickel, and palladium, foreshadowed the modern boom in this field. Similarly, she pioneered metal catalysis in aqueous dispersions and solutions – a central tenet of ‘green chemistry’. As well as contributing to the development of reactions which are at the heart of modern synthesis, she studied mechanism in depth. The importance of her studies of electrophilic substitution has been compared to that of Ingold on nucleophilic substitution. 

Much of her later work was accomplished in the turbulent period around the collapse of the Soviet Union, including massive cuts to the science budget. She is currently the head of the Laboratory of Organoelemental Compounds at Moscow State University, a post she has held since 1989.

Asima Chatterjee (1917-2006)
An archetypal organic chemist: her interests were about as close to pure synthesis as is possible. Her research focused on natural product synthesis, from glycosides to coumarins and beyond, most notably on indole alkaloids. Beyond her contributions to the art of pure synthesis, her work led to the development of antiepileptic and antimalarial drugs.

The barriers Asima Chatterjee surmounted, and precedents she set, are truly remarkable. She was the first woman to receive a D.Sc. from an Indian university, the first woman to hold a scientific chair at an Indian university, and the first female scientist to be elected General President of the Indian Science Congress Association. Her early career was plagued by an almost complete lack of funding for essentials of research: scholarships for students were rare, and invariably supplemented by other work; spectra were outsourced abroad at presumably great expense; materials and equipment were routinely borrowed from better-funded neighbours. This account from a former student is worth reading.

Clara Immerwahr (1870-1915)
Most famous as the wife of Fritz Haber, this remarkable woman was a brilliant chemist in her own right. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from a German university. Her career was cut short by her marriage and the commitments it entailed to running a household and raising a family. Undeterred, she became her husband’s assistant and translator, a latter-day Madame Lavoisier. Her quiet efforts earned her a dedication in his seminal textbook on thermodynamics. A very thorough and readable biography is available at the Jewish Women's Archive.

Driven by his patriotism, and perhaps a need to overcome the prejudiced his faced for his Jewish ancestry, Haber pioneered the weaponisation of chemistry on behalf of Germany. Clara openly opposed his work, describing it as a “perversion” of science. She was publicly denounced by him and the nation for her "treasonous" attitude. Ultimately, following the first deployment of chlorine gas at Ypres, she committed suicide with her husband’s pistol. Her motives are unknown.

While she may not have been a synthetic organic chemist, her moral stand against her husband’s wartime research is a lesson to us all.

This post draws heavily upon material from the wonderful Encyclopaedia of World Scientists by Elizabeth H. Oakes, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the Jewish Women's Archive. Other sources include the Nobel Foundation, humantouchofchemistry.com, and The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (which, incidentally, is a tour de force and I strongly recommend).


  1. You should also check this out if you haven't seen it yet. http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=16112

  2. I hadn't seen that, thanks for sharing. I see Gertrude Elion made their list, too. Looks like a great resource - we could do with one for the rest of chemistry!

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