Archive for the ‘Historical Women Scientists’ Category

Mary Engle Pennington

October 21st, 2020 No comments

Mary Engle Pennington had many achievements during her 40-year career with the USDA. Her pioneering research on sanitary methods of processing, storing, and shipping food led to achievements such as the first standards for milk safety, as well as standards for refrigeration of food products.           

Mary Engle Pennington was born in Nashville, Tennessee to Henry and Sarah Malony Pennington. As a young girl Mary showed an early interest in chemistry. She later went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania in 1890, a time when few women attended college. She completed her B.S. degree requirements in chemistry with minors in botany and zoology. However, at the time, the University of Pennsylvania did not grant degrees to women, so instead of getting a degree, she was given a certificate of proficiency.

            She continued her education and received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania at 22 years old. Her thesis was titled “Derivatives of Columbium and Tantulum.” After  receiving her Ph.D. she became a university fellow in botany at the University of Pennsylvania. She later became a fellow in physiological chemistry at Yale in 1897-1899. There she preformed research in physiological chemistry with Dr. Lafayette Mendel and Dr. Russell Chittenden. In 1898 she founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory,  became director of the Clinical Laboratory at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and was a bacteriologist with the Philadelphia Bureau of Health. She was instrumental in improving sanitation standards for the handling of milk and milk products.

            In 1905 Mary began working as a bacteriological chemistry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Harvey W. Wiley, Mary’s director, encouraged her to apply for the position as chief of the newly created Food Research Laboratory. In 1907 she accepted the position, making her the first female lab chief. During her time as director she was instrumental in developing standards for the safe processing of chickens raised for human consumption, as well as the design of refrigerated boxcars. She and Howard Castner Pierce were awarded a U.S. patent for an all-metal poultry-cooling rack for the cooling and grading of poultry, rabbits, and game.

            Mary’s involvement with refrigerated boxcar design led to an interest in the entire process of transporting and storing perishable food, for both home refrigeration and refrigerated transport. She later accepted a position at American Balsa, a private firm that manufactured insulation for refrigeration units. Later, in 1922, she started her own consulting business which she ran until she retired in 1952. During this time, she founded the Household Refrigeration Bureau to educate consumers in safe practices in domestic refrigeration. Much of her work was supported by the National Association of Ice Industries, which is an association of independent icemakers and distributors who delivered ice to homes before the widespread availability of electric refrigerators.

            After retirement Mary continued to work as a consultant and was the vice president of the American Institute of Refrigeration. During her lifetime Mary contributed to many scientific and medical journals. She was the recipient of the Garvan-Olin Medal, which is the highest award given to women in the American Chemical Society. She is also an inductee of both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Hall of Fame. She was the first woman elected to the poultry Historical Society of Fame. And most recently she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Written by: Rebecca Bogart

Edited by: Magenta Hensinger


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Ada Yonath

August 12th, 2020 No comments

Dr. Ada Yonath is known for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome, in which she won the 2009 Nobel Prize Award for, and developing a crystallography technique known as cryocrystallography.1 Yonath describes her childhood memories as “centered on my father’s medical conditions alongside my constant desire to understand the principles of the nature around me.” She was born in June of 1939 in Jerusalem to a poor household, sharing a four-room apartment with two additional families. Despite the circumstances, her parents strived to provide Dr. Yonath with a good education, and supported her curiosity and intellect.2

            At the age of 11, Yonath’s father passed away, and she took on many odd jobs to help support her mother, however it was a difficult time.3 They moved to Tel Aviv in Israel to be closer to their family, where she completed her high school education. Yonath later enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she received her degree in biochemistry and biophysics. She then carried out her doctoral work at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where she was studying the high-resolution structure of collagen. After her PhD, she started her postdoctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University, but later moved to MIT where she studied protein staphylococcus nuclease.2

            She later returned to the Weizmann Institute in 1970, but this time, as a young researcher with an ambitious plan. Yonath wanted to determine the 3-D structure of a ribosome, a feat not yet accomplished in the field of biochemistry. She would accomplish this using a technique known as X-ray crystallography. This technique involves shooting a material with X-rays, which diffract in different directions and intensities. The scattering of these beams can be measured to elucidate the structure. She describes that this was an endeavor that took close to two decades, and she was faced with negative opinions and ridicule from the scientific community. She stated “I became the World’s dreamer, the village fool, the so-called scientist, and the person driven by fantasies.”2 However, Yonath was motivated and continued with her ribosome research, partnering with Prof. Whittmann at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Germany in mid-1980s. The ribosome is complex of proteins and RNA chains, something scientists dedicated years trying to understand. It was incredibly difficult to form the crystals necessary for X-ray crystallography due to its intricate, flexible, and asymmetric nature.2 She stated that after the first indication of crystals, the potential for structure elucidation was not detected until four years later. Two years after that, they discovered that the irradiation decomposed the crystals.3

            However, this lead to what Yonath describes as her biggest contribution to science, the development of cryocrystallography, where protein crystals are subjected to extremely low temperatures of -185 ºC, and therefore are not degraded by the radiation damage.1 Once they published this method, suddenly Yonath and her collaborators were no longer the only ones working on elucidating the ribosomal structure, as others were using the procedures in a parallel effort. Yonath and coworkers were, however, the first to publish the 3-D structures of both subunits of the bacterial ribosome in 2000 and 2001. The gravity of this discovery is important, as the elucidation of this structure paves the path towards understanding how antibiotic drugs work in the ribosomal subunit, giving rise to improving or designing novel drugs.2 

            Prof. Ada Yonath received numerous awards and honors for her discovery. She was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize (the fourth female to win this award in chemistry!), the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry in 2005, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize in 2007, and the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in 2008.1 Yonath still is an active principle investigator at the Weizmann Institute, continuing her research to understand the mechanisms of antibiotics and ribosomes.  When asked what qualities it takes to be a good scientist she states: “Curiosity, first. Second, curiosity. And third, curiosity!”3

Written by Magenta Hensinger

Edited by Rebecca Bogart

1.         Rogers, K. Ada Yonath. (accessed July 28).

2.         Ada E. Yonath – Biographical. (accessed July 28).

3.         Yonath, A. E., Ada E. Yonath: “The challenge of science is like climbing Mount Everest”. Nolan, C., Ed. The UNESCO Courier.

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Katherine Goble Johnson

July 22nd, 2020 No comments

You may have first heard about Katherine Goble Johnson when the movie Hidden Figures was released in late 2016. Born before the time of the internet and laptops, she was known as a “computer” at Langely Research center. When she started, her job was to analyze, but eventually, her calculations led to sending Americas first astronaut into space.

Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia on August 26th, 1918. A brilliant girl, she was fascinated by numbers and quickly skipped grades during her education and was years ahead of kids her age. However, in the town of White Sulphur Springs, black children could not get an education beyond junior high. Because of this, her family moved over 100 miles away so she and her siblings could have the opportunity to attend high school.1 By the time she was 10 years old, she was in high school, and by the age of 15 she entered college at West Virginia State College.1a, 2 While this is an amazing feat it of itself, she made quick work of the curriculum and graduated summa cum laude in 1937, at the age of 18.1a After graduation, she became a teacher, and two years later was one of three black students to be offered a spot in the mathematics graduate program in the all-white West Virginia University.3 It wasn’t until after the 1938 Supreme Court ruling that black students were able to enroll in white colleges.4

 At the end of the first semester, Katherine decided to start a family with her first husband, James Goble, and left her graduate program. She gave birth to three girls, and returned to teaching.5 In 1952 she learned about an opportunity at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). At a time still heavily controlled by Jim Crow Laws, she joined a team of all-black all-female “human computers” under the guidance of mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.1a, 3 There, her talents were clearly recognized as she moved from her temporary position to a permanent one, and was assigned to the Flight Research Division where she spent 4 years analyzing data from flight tests. Unfortunately, her first husband also passed during this time.5

In October 1957, the world advanced as the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, and the space race intensified between the USA and Russia. Engineers, mathematicians, and scientists came together to form the “Space Task Force” and NACA was officially changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.1b During her time, she had contributed to “Notes on Space Technology” and the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission.3, 5 Katherine Johnson was officially credited for her work in the report, “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position” and was the first woman in her division to be given credit.3, 6

Her pioneering work helped drive the United States space program forward. In 1962, as NASA was preparing for the orbital mission of John Glenn, electronic computer systems were becoming more advanced and they were planning on using a worldwide communications network to help with the mission. However, the latest technology had some astronauts wary of the accuracy of the electronic calculations, and Glenn asked Katherine to double check the system. He stated, “if she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”5

Katherine Goble Johnson is a testimony to hard work and dedication, and the curiosity that drives us. The obstacles she faced, racism and bigotry, segregation, and the death of her first husband, must have been taxing and difficult to endure. Her calculations helped propel the USA into space which in turn helped to accelerate our understanding of the world beyond our own. In recent years, she has finally been recognized for her outstanding achievements and received many awards. In 2015, Katherine G. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Metal of Freedom by President Barak Obama. She also received a Silver Snoopy Award in 2016 and Congressional Gold Metals in 2019.1a Katherine Johnson died on February 24, 2020 at the age of 101. Although she is gone, she continues to serve as an inspiration and her life’s work is celebrated.  We recommend watching the movie Hidden Figures to learn more about Katherine Johnson and the other amazing black women who were involved in the space program.

Written by Magenta Hensinger
Edited by Rebecca Bogart and Lily Tatusko

1.         (a) Malcom, S. M., Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Science 2020, 386, 591; (b) Hodges, J. She Was a Computer When Computers Wore Skirts. (accessed 6/10/2020).

2.         May, S. Who Was Katherine Johnson?

3.         Shetterly, M. L., Katherine Johnson (1918–2020). Nature 2020, 570, 341.

4.         Hostuttler, L. Preserving the History of WVU’s First African-American Graduates. (accessed 6/10/2020).

5.         Shetterly, M. L. Katherine Johnson Biography. (accessed 6/10/2020).

6.         Skopinski, T. H.; Johnson, K. G., Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position. NASA, Ed. NASA: Langley Research Center, 1960; Vol. D-233.

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