A Brief History of Women in Chemistry at Oregon State University – The Beginning to 1960

This post is contributed by SCARC student archivist Hannah Lawson, a chemistry major with a passion for art, conservation, and preserving history.


Before 1900

1892 photoIn the early days of Oregon Agricultural College, an education in the basics of chemistry were a requirement for all students. Prior to 1900, no chemistry degrees were awarded, as there was no specific program for chemistry. While nearly half of the students enrolled at Oregon State University were women, few were science majors. Several women earned degrees in sciences related to agriculture, however the majority of women who earned Bachelor’s degrees in the 19th century at Oregon Agricultural College focused their studies in home economics. Many women became interested in chemistry through courses offered in the home economics program, in which basic reactionary chemistry was taught in the context of household solvents and reactions.

1900-1929

The schools of pharmacy and chemistry became separate departments in 1909, under which time John Fulton was the Department Chair. With a dedicated building and more funding, the department of Chemistry at Oregon State University could now focus on expanding their resources to attract new chemistry students and faculty. Female involvement in the chemistry department at this time was limited to chemistry courses and instruction through household science programs. Only a few women graduated with higher degrees in science at this time, although many were indirectly involved in chemistry through agricultural chemistry programs or food science and technology. The women who were directly involved in the chemistry department through instruction, research, or stock room maintenance as staff or faculty often never stayed in the department for more than a few years.

The Chemistry Department at Oregon State University during these years was small and somewhat homogenous. Linus Pauling, Oregon State’s esteemed Nobel Prize-winning alum, graduated from Oregon State University in 1922. During his time at Oregon State, he taught a chemistry course for home economics majors where he met his wife of 58 years, Ava Helen.

1930-1959

Lillian Olsen

Lillian Olsen

The 1930s through 1960s marked a progressive time in the world of chemistry. New discoveries were being made due to the revolutionary new technology at the time, and with the advent of the modern analog computer, computational chemistry was expanding. While there were a few chemistry instructors and researchers who were women at this time, there were no female chemistry professors. Ruth Parkinson and Lillian Olsen were chemistry instructors during this time.

Ruth Parkinson

Ruth Parkinson

The 1930s through 1960s represented a turbulent time in American history, as it spans two major wars. However, this time is also representative of change, and the inclusion of women in the chemistry department at Oregon State University shows the changing attitudes towards women in STEM fields. As the field of chemistry expanded, as did the diversity of individuals within the field.

The chemistry notebooks of Mary Spike, who was a pharmacy major in 1934, showcase the nature of chemistry at this time. The material taught in her general chemistry classes were simultaneously in depth, yet lacking in more modern chemical knowledge, such as the neutron and radiation, which are common aspects of chemistry courses nowadays. Mary Spike’s scrapbooks are filled with materials and keepsakes from her sorority, Sigma Kappa. Ultimately, Mary Spike’s collection shows us that a female chemistry student is just like any other, concerned with academics, social life, and her future in science.

Marian Elizabeth Hills

Marian Elizabeth Hills

The first PhD in Chemistry at Oregon State University was awarded to Karl Klemm in 1935. The first PhD in Chemistry awarded to a woman came 25 years later, according to the commencement programs at the Special Collections & Archives Research Center, to Marian Elizabeth Hills. However, the first PhD awarded to a woman at Oregon State University was in 1941, to Chuang Kwai Lui, who earned her doctorate in Physics.

 

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