Monday, August 25, 2008

Nina Matheny Roscher on Early Women Chemists of the Northeast

When I was surfing about for my alchemy post, I stumbled across an interesting paper: "Early Women Chemists of the Northeast" (pdf) by Nina Matheny Roscher and Phillip L. Ammons. The article was adapted from a presentation at the 182nd American Society National Meeting in 1981, and profiles a number of early 20th-century women who trained as chemists at Mt. Holyoke and other universities in the Northeastern United States, including Emma Perry Carr, Mary Lura Sherrill, Pauline Beery Mack, Mary Locke Petermann and several others. It's an interesting article that concludes:

The lives and careers of these women have inspired other talented women to enter a field that was once closed to them. Although their careers were very different, some similarites are apparent in their different paths to recognition. First, the influence of the two world wars on the supply of talented men and on the supply of good research jobs seems to have been a crucial factor in many of these women's "first break" and added new opportunities for others who already had distinguished themselves in chemistry. [...] Another similarity is the use of group research. [...]
It's a bit disturbing to think of war as a job opportunity, but it does make sense that wartime can bring both opportunities for some types of research and a shortage of researchers. At least the more recent gains of women in the physical sciences aren't based on death and destruction.

It also turns out that the primary author of the article, Nina Matheny Roscher, was herself a chemist who worked to assist women interested in pursuing careers in chemistry. She was one of only nine women graduate students - out of 450 total - in the Purdue chemistry department when she received her doctorate in physical organic chemistry 1964. After teaching at the University of Texas at Austin and Rutgers, she joined the faculty of American University in Washington, DC. In 1991 she was appointed chair of the AU chemistry department, a position she held until her death in 2001 at the age of 62.

Roscher was long an advocate for women in science. In the late 1970s administered a NSF program that "retrained women who had earned scientific degrees but had been discouraged from pursuing careers in their area of study." In 1996 she and AU mathematics professor Mary Gray were awarded a NSF grant "to encourage young women at American University to strengthen their mathematics and science studies, and to not drop such classes as often happens in college. The two faculty members devised a program that would allow 25 first-year women students to explore the connections between public policy, science, and mathematics." She was obviously also interested in the history of women in science as well. In recognition of her work, she was awarded the American Chemical Society Award for Encouraging Women into the Physical Sciences in 1996 and received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science , Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1998.

It sounds like she was one of the rare scientists who cared as much about mentoring as about doing research.

More from Nina Roscher:
Image: Nina Roscher in 1996
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Anonymous said...

The article is available from the online Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, in PDF form at

Peggy K said...

If you click the title of the paper, the link will take you to that article.