The Women in Chemistry
LS: And at this lab, I think I read you were the only woman?
MC: Oh yes, of course.
LS: And how was that experience for you?
MC: Well, [laugh] it was a trial by fire. I would walk into an office and all the men would stop talking. I had quite an experience. One of the nice things about it was that my immediate superior was very sympathetic and very supportive, my relations with him it were fine. It's just that they would never promote me. They told me so. I reached the top salary of the rank within about a year and-one-half. And I asked whether I would ever be promoted to my rightful position which was junior chemist which I told you was a professional rating. And I was told no. When I asked why, the section chief sent me to the division chief who told me that the head of the whole organization was located in Washington, didn't believe in women scientists working in the lab. In fact, he had seen me working in a lab when he was visiting. Engine labs are dirty places and I was wearing a khaki coat, which my male colleagues wore, too. After his visit, he issued a memo saying that I wasn't to work in that lab. So I said, “all right, if you will give me someone to work for me, I'll design the experiments and someone else can do them.” And they did. They assigned a young man, who had a higher rank then I did. He was a physicist actually. And we got on fine, he and I. But when I later asked why the head of this organization, his name was Louis, didn't want women scientists, these were reasons they gave me. One was that if men scientists worked next to women scientists they invariably left their wives and married the women scientists. The other reason was that they might have men working under them. I already had. He apparently wasn't aware of that. So I thought it was time to leave that place. [laugh]
LS: And so you left after, how long were you there?
MC: About two and one-quarter years. I took a leave of absence and went back the next summer to earn some money. So all and all I was there about two and one-half years.
LS: And then you went to where?
MC: I went to Columbia. I went back to Columbia because again, I could live at home, you see, which made it possible for me financially.
LS: I also read you had an interest in chemical engineering?
MC: Yes. Because the projects I was working on at the lab were chemical engineering projects, I thought, I had a very nice problem that I wanted to work on, which was very suitable for a Ph.D. thesis in chemical engineering. And I thought I could take all the necessary course work and then go back to the NACA to work on my thesis problem. I'd get my Ph.D. that way with the least financial stress, you see. It didn't work out that way because the chemical engineering department would not admit women students.
LS: Part of this project, we've been looking prominent female chemical engineering and we've had such a difficulty locating women that you know, have had a career in the time period that we are looking at.
MC: Well, I met one woman at Yale once when I was lecturing there. I lectured there for one month once. She told me she was a German refugee and she had a degree from Germany in chemical engineering. And when she came to this country, she was told she'd better get herself a Ph.D. in chemistry because no woman would be hired in chemical engineering.
LS: So the engineering was for the men?
MC: That's right. Definitely. And you know, that's a cultural thing. My husband had a Vietnamese student, a male, and his wife was a chemical engineer. And I got to know her so well. She told me that in Vietnam, unlike this country, the men are chemists and the women are the chemical engineers because there they think that women are much more practical and men are much more capable of abstract thinking.
LS: I think it's also part of, that women today still have this. I mean their confidence to do their own publications. Do you see that?
MC: Well, as my psychologist daughter once said to me, “not everyone has your self-confidence.” But I was always successful in my studies and research. As a result, I did have a lot of self-confidence. And also the influence of my father who assured me I could do anything I wanted to. So, I didn't suffer from that problem which is a great help for a woman in our society, or in a discipline where the men are dominant. And they are in chemistry. One difference in my generation and the current situation as far as women are concerned in science is that at that time the discrimination was overt. They made no bones about it. They told me clearly they wouldn't give a woman a teaching assistantship.
In 1937, when I finished my Ph.D. thesis, it was still the Depression, and jobs were scarce. I didn't actually get my degree until '38 because they required 150 printed copies of your thesis. If you had published you could use reprints and have a special title page and cover printed. Otherwise you'd have to print it at your own expense. You didn't get your degree until you turned it in. And so my paper wasn't published until '38 and so I had to wait until '38 to officially be awarded my Ph.D. degree. But I actually finished in '37. Columbia had an outstanding chemistry department in those years, really very good people. Industry recognized that and they used to send their recruiters around in April. And each one of them like Dupont, Standard Oil, Lindyair and so on would hire one a piece. Columbia at that time had a very large graduate student population, we had 75 candidates for the Ph.D. The announcements would go up on the bulletin board of the chemistry department and they all stated about the same message. Mr. so-and-so from such-and-such a company, will interview all prospective Ph.D.'s of this year now male Christian. So that's what I mean about discrimination being overt. I never had an interview. Of course, I was out on two counts, and of course, such an eligibility statement is illegal today. Whenever I tell this story to young people, they express surprise, they can't believe it. But it was accepted without comment at that time. Urey tried to find me a job and I remember him coming to me and saying, “nobody wants you.” So, when I got an opportunity to go into biochemistry I did. The situation was better there since there were more women in biochemistry than in physical chemistry.
LS: Well, in '38 you also married?
LS: Your husband. And he was a student at Columbia?
MC: Yes. Well, he was a senior undergraduate at Columbia when I was a graduate student, but we were in a course together. We met in a physics course actually, in a physics lab course. Then he went to graduate student in Princeton for one year. Since he didn't receive a fellowship there; so he ended up at NYU where he got one. We waited until he had his Ph.D. too which was one year after I had received mine. And then we got married.
LS: And the two of you went to Washington University?
MC: Oh, that was much later.
LS: Oh, that was much later, okay.
MC: Oh yes, that was after the war.
LS: So what happened during the war period?
MC: Well, in 1937 I took a position with du Vigneaud and in the spring of '38 he accepted the position as head of the department at Cornell Medical College in New York. My husband and I had estimated that there was probability of zero that we would both have jobs in the same city at the same time. But we were very lucky. Du Vigneaud asked me to accompany him to Cornell and my husband who was a very good physicist was actually offered two jobs and one was in New York. So he took that one, at Brooklyn Poly Tech and I went to Cornell. I stayed there for eight years all during the World War II years. I had my first two children during that period too. My husband started doing [unclear] work, left Brooklyn Poly went to Queens College and then the war broke out. I mean the United States got into the war and he left Queens to work on the war project. And then I stayed at Cornell all those years. And then in '45 his project, after VE day they, the project ceased and he got a job at NYU. And then in '46 he was offered a job at Washington University and I wanted out and I couldn't get out. Because Leo made it very clear he didn't want me to leave.
LS: And you wanted to leave because?
MC: Oh, I had learned all I could, you know. I had been a post doc for eight years.
Curator-Archives of Women in Science and Engineering