Monumental Women in Chemistry

There is no denying that monumental and every day science questions have been answered with the help of great science. Why do things fall toward the ground? Why is the sky blue? Why does stainless steel rust?  Thanks to those who pursue science with a sense of curiosity, new things are constantly being discovered about the world around us.

When you consider the names associated with some of our greatest scientific discoveries who stand out? Newton? Einstein? Watson and Crick? Remember the world of science is not just a boys’ club. There have been a great number of women who have made science and, more specifically, chemistry their life’s passion. Who comes to mind for you then?

The first name most people are likely to think of is Marie Curie. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium. Her discoveries in regards to radioactive elements have gone on to influence scientific experiments and the field of medicine for over a century. It is also notable that she is the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes, having previously won in the field of Physics.

Another, more recent, Nobel Laureate is Ada E. Yonath. In 2009, this Israeli chemist won the Nobel Prize for her extensive study of the structure and function of ribosomes. In an effort that spanned nearly three decades of work, Yonath successfully mapped the structure of the ribosome. This work has led to advances in the production of antibiotics, among other things.

What about Stephanie Kwolek? Her name may not be the first to come to mind when thinking of women in science, but her creations have saved countless lives. During her time with the DuPont Company, Kwolek was tasked with discovering super fibers capable of performing under extreme conditions. This led to the creation of Kevlar fiber, which has been used to create protective clothing for athletes and scientists, protection for undersea fiber-optic cables, and, of course, lightweight armor for police and military.

Another DuPont alumna worth mentioning is Uma Chowdhry, a retired senior vice president and chief science and technology officer at DuPont. Initially, an ambitious young Uma Chowdhry left India for the United States with a desire to study physics and engineering. However, through her experiences and education she fell in love with chemistry. She particularly enjoyed materials science, which led her to work in industrial research. Her early years at DuPont were spent making ceramic materials that conduct electricity, advancing the practical uses of superconductors.

In the early 1950s, Patsy O’Connell Sherman was supposed to find a type of rubber material that could resist deterioration from jet fuels. While working in the lab, she accidentally spilled some of the chemicals on her shoes. Over time, her shoes became dirty, except for the spot that had been exposed on that fateful day in the lab. This accident led Sherman to the discovery of a fluorochemical polymer capable of repelling oil and water from fabrics. Today, we know this discovery as Scotchgard.

Oftentimes we only pay attention to achievements making the headlines. However, chemists around the world are working diligently each and every day to make our world a safer, happier, and healthier place.

As we reflected on this list we were struck by the common denominator of determination and curiosity. Like these women, we encourage you to approach life with a persistent sense of wonder and awe—always ask “why” and above all, stay curious.