Women who ignored the limits: five famous female chemists

Browsing a popular newspaper site the other day I came across this very funny article by Dean Burnett, inspired by the brilliant Harry Enfield ‘Women, know your limits!’ sketch of a few years ago in which a woman dares to offer a dangerous opinion of her own.  In the sketch, filmed in the style of a 40’s black and white public information film, Mr Enfield claims that over-education leads to ugliness, premature ageing and beard growth, and beseeches women to stick to what they know best, namely, fluffy kittens.  know your limits

All very funny and yet… ask anyone to name some famous scientists and I bet you anything that at least the first five names they come up with are men.  Perhaps this is to be expected, after all the scientific method has been kicking around for ooh, well, it’s debatable, but at least 1000 years if not more.  Whereas the ludicrous idea that most women might be capable of learning about tricky things like numbers and and stuff has only been widely accepted, in this country in any case, for a few decades or so.

So to balance the books a bit, here’s my list of five famous(ish) women chemists, none of whom had beards (as far as I can tell).  Absorb and learn.  If nothing else, should the topic of scientists ever come up on the TV quiz show Pointless I can guarantee most of these will be down there in single figures, if not actually pointless.

Cleopatra the Alchemist (dates unknown)
Not the same person as Cleopatra VII, this one lived (probably) in the 3rd or 4th century.  The title Cleopatra the Alchemist is a pseudonym and her real name has been lost.  She was thought to be one of only four women who knew how to make the mythical philosopher’s stone (yes, just like in Harry Potter.  Well sort of) and, perhaps more scientifically, her work also contained several descriptions and drawings of the technical process of furnaces.  She’s also sometimes credited with the invention of an early type of distillation apparatus.  Without this useful chemical technique, we wouldn’t have petrol, plastics or, indeed, vodka.  Cheers!

Marie Curie (1867-1934)
The Polish Madame Marie Curie is most famous for her work on radioactivity and is often thought of as more of a physicist.   However she definitely earned her chemical chops for discovering two (count ’em, two) whole new elements: polonium (Po) and radium (Ra).  She painstakingly managed to isolate about 0.1 g of radium chloride from 1 ton (907185 g) of the mineral pitchblende.  Now that’s patience.  In 1948 the element curium (Cm) was named in her, and her husband Pierre’s, honour.

Elizabeth Arden (1884-1966)
A famous name, if not one we necessarily associate with science, she was born Florence Nightingale Graham and changed her name in 1909.  Although not formally educated as such, she counts as a chemist for formulating, as well as manufacturing and marketing, her cosmetic products.  She pioneered the idea that cosmetics could and should be scientifically formulated, a concept that many other companies subsequently copied.  She did wear an awful lot of pink, but nobody’s perfect.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Who discovered the structure of DNA? Wasn’t that Watson and Crick? Actually it was x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin who produced the first images of deoxyribonucleic acid, and Watson and Crick even publicly admitted to using her data to develop their hypothesis.  Sadly Franklin was a cautious scientist and her work, based on experimental results, was published after their theoretical paper.  Subsequently she’s often forgotten about, particularly because, as she died in 1958 and the rules forbid posthumous nominations, she was never included included in the Nobel Prize awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962.  Don’t hide your light girls.

Anna Jane Harrison (1912-1998)
Harrison, who unlike many historical chemists (when you spend your days messing about with substances that so often turn out to be toxic, you’re invariably in danger of shuffling off this mortal coil earlier than most) managed to live until the ripe old age of 86, was an American organic chemist and the first female president of the American Chemical Society.  She was also the recipient of twenty honorary degrees, none of which were bought from dodgy internet sites.  She worked on toxic smoke during the second world war, and also contributed to research on ultraviolet light.

Sadly, none of these ladies are alive today.  Can you think of any other female chemists who’ve made important discoveries?  Tell me about her…


10 thoughts on “Women who ignored the limits: five famous female chemists

    • That’s an interesting story Robert, thanks for sending me to have a look! I imagine the Nobel prize committee’s stance was that they award to the lead researcher. This sort of thing often happens with postgrads and supervisors. Still I see she’s now a Dame. That’s got to trump a Nobel prize – there’s no title with the Nobel!


    • Lise Meitner had a similar situation (her partner Otto Hahn won the Nobel) when they discovered nuclear fission. Most would consider her a physicist but I see radioactivity as a common border between physics and chemistry.


      • Another interesting tale! I wonder if there are a disproportionate number of women who get overlooked, or if it happens just as much to men. And I agree about nuclear science – it is after all the stuff of matter 🙂


  1. Pingback: April 20, Glow Day | Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

  2. This was a great article. My daughter is in Honors Chemistry in HS and has had to write a series of papers summarizing and providing a reaction to various articles surrounding her subject (which is women in chemistry — with the subtext being the fact that women in science are not as well known or given the credit and recognition they deserve and how in many cases had their work “borrowed” or pushed aside by male counterparts). I just wanted to let you know she used this article as her third in the series to make her point. We’re both making our way through the rest of your blog now as it’s extremely interesting and well written! Thank you for sharing your views and your knowledge!


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