A Brief History of Women in Chemistry at Oregon State University – 1960 to Present Day

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


1960-1989

Agricultural Chemistry has had a long standing presence at Oregon State University, as OSU was originally an agriculturally focused school. The history of agricultural chemistry at Oregon State University, and thus the history of woman in agricultural chemistry at Oregon State is similar to that of the Chemistry Department. While many female students took agricultural chemistry courses and earned undergraduate degrees from the department, few were involved in the faculty outside of instruction or research assistance.

Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons was a research assistant working in the department of agricultural chemistry.

Clara Shoemaker, formerly Clara Brink, was the wife of David Shoemaker, the chair of the chemistry department from 1970 through 1981. She was born in The Netherlands and earned her Bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Leiden. Her doctoral studies were continually put on halt due to the Second World War, but eventually Clara received her PhD in 1950. During her graduate program, Clara was introduced to x-ray crystallography and the study of inorganic structure chemistry. After a few years of abroad study in England, Clara eventually traveled to the United States to work alongside David Shoemaker at MIT. The two would eventually marry, forming a husband-wife chemist duo.

Clara Shoemaker

Clara Shoemaker

At Oregon State University, Clara conducted research on heavy metal transition phases, particularly close-packed tetrahedral structures alongside Ken Hedberg. Hedberg’s wife, Lise, was also a research professor at Oregon State University who worked alongside David. This arrangement was to avoid the nepotism rules in the department at this time. After these nepotism rules were abolished, however, Clara resumed her work alongside her husband until their retirement in 1984.

 

Almost identically, Lise and Ken Hedberg were a married chemist pair who researched alongside each other in branches of computational and physical chemistry. Though retired, both are still alive and continue to perform research and advising at Oregon State University.

Te May Ching

Te May Ching

Te May Ching was a professor in the botany department at Oregon State University from 1958 to 1988. While not directly involved in the chemistry department, Ching was extremely involved in the success and expansion of women in STEM, both nationally and on campus at Oregon State University. She regularly kept in touch with female faculty members from other science departments, and was a member of Women in Development, a group dedicated to furthering education and information on women in developing countries. Additionally, Te May Ching was a member of the Association for Women in Science, a group that discussed the experiences and issues that come from being a woman in a professional scientific field. Ching was known for being a mentor to young women in science, and has undoubtedly had a part in the development of women in science at Oregon State University.

Many women were involved in the chemistry department through secretarial positions in the office or in the stock rooms. Yvonne Fossum worked as a stock room clerk from 1938 until her retirement in 1972.

In the early 80s, the Niobium Chapter of Iota Sigma Pi, an honorary sorority for women in chemistry was established. While short-lived, the presence of Iota Sigma Pi on Oregon State University’s campus demonstrates the capacity of female chemistry students to form communities to help one another.

Women in Chemistry At OSU After 1990

Today, chemistry at Oregon State University is definitively more diverse than it has ever been. Much of that can be attributed to the outreach programs offered at various local public schools and on OSU’s campus. Precollege programs expose young female students to scientific research and careers they might have never considered before, and the popularization of famous and revolutionary female scientists like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin offer these young women a glimpse at what is possible in the field of chemistry. While the ratio of men and women in the chemistry department is still skewed (especially in regards to professorship and tenure), there are many faculty members, instructors, and students who are women.

It is impossible to observe the history of women in science at Oregon State University without also addressing the barriers that have kept women out of science for tens of decades. While there was never any formal restrictions keeping women out of chemistry programs or professional careers, there were certainly social restrictions. Rural Oregon in the 20th century was unfortunately not as diverse as the Oregon State University campus is today, and many women felt confined to more domestic programs, like home economics or education.

The Chemistry Department at Oregon State University owes its diversity and progression to the women who paved the way for those who came after them; whose passion for science and discovery allowed them to advance in a field where they were not always welcome. As a science and as a profession, chemistry can only benefit from a myriad of scientists whose backgrounds and identities are varied. The future of scientific advancement is dependent on this diversity, and as the Chemistry Department develops further, it is important to remember its’ history, and how the environment the department provides for its faculty, researchers, and students can be improved for generations of chemists to come.

The Oregon State University’s statement on diversity is as follows:

“Oregon State University aspires to be a collaborative, inclusive, and caring community that strives for equity and equal opportunity in everything we do; that creates a welcoming environment and enables success for people from all walks of life; and that shares common, fundamental values grounded in justice, civility, and respect while looking to our diversity as a source of enrichment and strength.”

 

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