Women in Chemistry

Women have contributed to the chemical sciences since the age of alchemy, but for centuries they did so largely unseen and unheard. Women in Chemistry, a TV show and companion film series, celebrates women scientists and entrepreneurs.

Television Broadcast

In the 19th and much of the 20th century, women who pursued careers in chemistry often faced intense discrimination and were allowed only ancillary roles in the laboratory. Even today, as women gain prominence in chemical fields, the legacy of the past persists.

In 2013, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Science History Institute partnered with WHYY Philadelphia to present Women in Chemistry: Lessons from Life and the Laboratory, an hour-long television show celebrating women in science. The individuals featured—Nancy Chang, Uma Chowdhry, Mildred Cohn, Mary Lowe Good, Kitty Hach-Darrow, Paula Hammond, Stephanie Kwolek, and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw—work in a variety of scientific careers and come from different generations, countries, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. All have made significant contributions to the chemical sciences.

Individual Stories: The Catalyst Series

The one-hour television broadcast was based on our earlier film project, The Catalyst Series: Women in Chemistry. These short films celebrate the catalytic effect of eight extraordinary women scientists and entrepreneurs, and highlight their ambition, courage, and life-changing, chance-taking, thrill-seeking love of science.

Cofounder and former CEO of Tanox

Follow your heart, follow your passion.

Through the airplane window, 19-year-old Nancy Chang watched Taiwan disappear beneath her. To pass the time on the long trip to the United States, where she was to attend Brown University, she opened a copy of The Double Helix, James Watson’s first-person account of discovering the structure of DNA. Sixteen hours later the plane touched down in Boston. Chang had made up her mind: she would study biology.

Chang went on to study at Harvard Medical School as one of the school’s first international students. She received a PhD in biological chemistry and became one of the world’s most successful biotech businesswomen after cofounding the biopharmaceutical firm Tanox (now part of Genentech), a company that sought remedies for asthma and allergies through the use of genetics engineering.

Former senior vice president and chief science and technology officer of DuPont

I had the courage to dream the impossible.

An ambitious teenaged Uma Chowdhry—determined to win a Nobel Prize—left her home in India to study chemistry in the United States. But after falling in love with materials science, the study of solids at the molecular level, Chowdhry decided to work in industrial research. She was fascinated by the possibility that her findings might end up in a practical application on the open market.

At DuPont, Chowdhry studied new materials, helping to create superconductors, or materials that have no resistance to electrical current at temperatures near absolute zero. The technologies she contributed to and later managed are now part of electronic packaging, photovoltaics, batteries, biofuel, and many sustainable products that fundamentally change the way we use everyday things.

First woman president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

I didn’t intend to be an assistant for the rest of my life; so I started a new field of research.

Mildred Cohn was determined to prove that talent should be the only qualification for working in chemistry. At a time when open displays of prejudice against women and Jews were not uncommon, she fought for and won a place in high-level government and university laboratories. 

Cohn transformed the study of enzymes, building her own high-tech instruments when the right ones weren’t available. She also helped pioneer the technique of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and instruments like NMR spectrometers, which enabled her to study how enzymes and other proteins behave during chemical reactions in the body. 

Even after she retired, Cohn didn’t back down from a challenge: she celebrated her 90th birthday by going hang gliding.

Former president of the American Chemical Society, undersecretary for technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Bill Clinton

You’ve got to take the opportunities as they appear.

Mary Lowe Good didn’t envision the head-spinning list of accomplishments that awaited her when setting off for college. She planned to become a home-economics teacher, a well-paying job for women at the time. One day, however, in a required chemistry course, Good learned about Marie Curie and was captivated by her scientific achievements. She took a chance and switched her major to chemistry. The rest of her fascinating career, she says, has been a series of chances that she was just curious and gutsy enough to take.

As a chemistry professor, Good pioneered an experimental technique called Mössbauer spectroscopy, which uses gamma rays to figure out the molecular structure of complicated compounds containing metal ions. With this technology she could learn in an afternoon what previously would have taken an entire year of study. 

Although she was happy in her lab, when Universal Oil Products wooed her, she agreed to become the company’s director of research and work on innovative technologies. Finally, she took her talents to the national stage, advising on science and technology under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Cofounder of the Hach Chemical Company

The water on this planet is all that we have. It needs to be cared for.

A child of the Great Depression, Kathryn (“Kitty”) Hach-Darrow watched her family struggle to recover after they lost their car dealership. She knew that keeping things afloat meant getting creative. So she raised and sold a flock of turkeys to pay for her freshman year of college. And years later, when her husband, the chemist Clifford Hach, invented a new water-analysis system, she set out to create the market for it.

By introducing chemistry to the field of water analysis, the Hach Chemical Company could guarantee safe, clean drinking water in town after town throughout the United States. But people had to know about the new technology first. 

While also raising the couple’s three children, Hach-Darrow pioneered a direct-mail campaign that radically expanded the company; she even piloted her own plane to promote the analysis kits and distribute them to remote towns. Before retirement, Hach-Darrow guided the company to its current status as a global leader in water-purification technology.

David H. Koch Professor in Engineering at MIT

I learned to not be intimidated by the problem.

Paula Hammond is in pursuit of the invisible. In her lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) she creates technologies so small that you can’t see them with most microscopes—that is, until they save a soldier’s life on the battlefield or illuminate light bulbs using stored solar power.

Chemistry captured Hammond’s imagination when she was 15. She’d planned to be a writer, but her favorite high-school chemistry teacher piqued her curiosity by explaining how two elements could be combined to create an entirely new substance. Hammond went on to excel in chemistry at MIT, one of the most rigorous scientific universities in the world, at a time when women still made up only one-fifth of the student body and there were even fewer students of color. She followed her fascination with new materials by studying nanotechnology—the creation of technologies that work at the molecular or atomic level. She has found polymers that increase the amount of power held by solar cells and created materials that reorganize their own molecules. 

In 2002 Hammond cofounded the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology, where she and her partners use their scientific know-how to make troops safer on the ground. One of her discoveries is a spray coating that helps blood clot almost instantly, a technology that could save thousands of lives and limbs a year on the battlefield.

Former research associate at DuPont and inventor of Kevlar

I don’t think there’s anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.

In 1965 the chemical company DuPont was looking for its next big innovations, the kind of products that would change people’s lives. It assigned a research chemist named Stephanie Kwolek to go find one.

Kwolek focused on fibers, searching for a synthetic material that could withstand extreme conditions. She unexpectedly discovered that after being dissolved in a solvent the aramid polyamides she was studying could be spun into fibers of extraordinary strength and stiffness. The material was five times stronger than steel, was extremely lightweight, and did not rust or corrode. After she patented the material in 1966, DuPont named it Kevlar.

Kwolek’s discovery has gone on to save lives as a lightweight body armor for police and the military; to convey messages across the ocean as a protector of undersea optical-fiber cable; to suspend bridges with super-strong ropes; and to be used in countless more applications from protective clothing for athletes and scientists to canoes, drumheads, and frying pans. In 1995 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, only the fourth woman among 113 members.

Founder, chair, and managing director of Biocon Limited

I managed to do things with a lot of common sense, a lot of determination, and a lot of foolish courage.

As a child growing up in Bangalore, India, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was aware of her country’s national pride in its contributions to chemistry and related sciences. She was also well aware of cultural norms that often limited the social mobility of women. With some trepidation Mazumdar-Shaw inherited her father’s title of master brewer at United Breweries, an event that led to a chance meeting with Leslie Auchincloss, founder of the biotechnology company Biocon Biochemicals.

In 1978 Mazumdar-Shaw became managing director for Biocon India, a business she referred to in newspaper ads as a “multinational company.” What she neglected to tell applicants, however, was that Biocon India was operating out of her home garage. With just two unlikely employees, a master brewer’s certificate, and her father’s blessing Mazumdar-Shaw began a business specializing in industrial enzymes for food and textile makers around the globe.

Today Biocon is the largest biotechnology corporation in India and home to more than 5,000 employees. The business has expanded into the pharmaceutical industry, becoming Asia’s chief producer of insulin and an innovator of treatments for diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Mazumdar-Shaw has been recognized by both Time and Forbes for her scientific and philanthropic ambition.


The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provided lead support for The Catalyst Series: Women in Chemistry. Mary Kenley Gall provided generous support for Women in Chemistry: Lessons from Life and the Laboratory. Important support for the Women in Chemistry web components, including eight individual films about the featured women and the companion audio series, Stories from the Field, was provided by Ashland, the Rathmann Family Foundation, Nancy Chang, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.


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