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Women’s History Month 2021

On occasion of women’s history month, it is important to think about the women that have written about the history of chemistry, but also about the women chemists who have shaped chemistry through their scientific work.

Early historians of chemistry

Though she was originally from Austria, Ida Freund (1863-1914) was the first female lecturer in chemistry at the UK, where she taught girls at Newnham College (Cambridge). Freund was also a feminist who actively promoted women’s education, access to the Chemical Society and suffrage. Her book “The Study of Chemical Composition” (1904) contains a historical account of stoichiometry that is still relevant today.

Hélène Metzger (1889-1944) was a French chemist, historian of chemistry and philosopher of science working in an exclusively male community. Despite publishing seven monographs and around thirty articles, she was never able to obtain a university position. Her work on the history of chemistry influenced Kuhn and Bachelard, among others. She was deported to Auschwitz and died either on the way or upon arrival.

Mary Elvira Weeks (1892-1975) worked as a highschool teacher before obtaining her PhD and teaching quantitative analysis at Kansas University (USA), where she was the first female chemistry faculty member. She started writing about the history of chemistry as a hobby, and eventually became a professional translator, editor and historian. Her book Discovery of the Elements was a big success, going through seven editions.

(Recent) Books about women chemists

In their edited volume Women in their Element, Selected Women's Contributions to the Periodic System, Annette Lykknes and Brigitte Van Tiggelen aim to go beyond the classical discovery stories. They bring to light the stories of women chemists, from unpaid assistants to leaders of big projects. Instead of focusing on a lone (male) genius, they celebrate the collaborative nature of scientific practice.

Read about the contributions of Ida Smedley and Martha Whiteley in Patricia Fara's wonderful account of science and suffrage in the First World War: A lab of one’s own: science and suffrage in the first world war.

Further reading/listening/watching:

In honor of Women’s History Month 2013, the Science History Institute and WHYY Philadelphia presented Women in Chemistry: Lessons from Life and the Laboratory, an hour-long television show celebrating the contributions of women to chemistry.

In 2019, Brigitte van Tiggelen and Annette Lykknes published an article in Nature focusing on female researchers who discovered elements and their properties.

Lady Science is a magazine for the history and popular culture of science. They publish a variety of voices and work on women and gender across the sciences.

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