Research Bias

Article by Raffaella Ocone CEng FIChemE and Nina Baker

Raffaella Ocone and Nina Baker seek out the stories of chemical engineering’s female forerunners

IT all started a couple of years ago. One of us was attending the banquet at a major international conference on chemical engineering when a speaker took to the stage to deliver the after-dinner speech.

It started well. We were given a whistle-stop tour of the history of the field in focus and how the conference had developed since its inaugural year. Photos flicked across the screen, showing us the forerunners and leading lights of the field from its inception days through to the present. But the enjoyment quickly withered to disbelief: there had not been a single mention of a single woman. Was that because no women had made significant contributions to the field? Was that because women did not participate in the conference? Was that because of a single lens’ interpretation of the data? Was that because women did not like to be photographed?

Driven by curiosity, we set ourselves the challenge of rectifying this situation by looking at the development of chemical engineering through the eyes of women who have contributed. We have now committed some resources over the coming year to researching how women have influenced chemical engineering research. To keep the project manageable, we will start by restricting ourselves to the UK.

There have been attempts to trace the contributions of women in chemistry, including by the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the paper Pounding on the Doors: The Fight for Acceptance of British Women Chemists, published in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry. But we believe that a systematic view of chemical engineering seen through the eyes of the “actresses” in our discipline does not exist – and this is what we are keen to create.

People, Pipes and Processes is a short history of chemical engineering and IChemE that was written by the late Don Freshwater and published in 1997. In the book, Freshwater, who for many years was Head of the Chemical Engineering Department at Loughborough University, UK, recounts the story that the first female student in the department came because her school didn’t think she was good enough to get into the chemistry department. She subsequently got three As at A-level, went on to graduate with first-class honours, and become the first female professor of chemical engineering in the US.

Separately, Freshwater wrote in 1997 that Angela Gunning became the first female Fellow of IChemE in 1987. He said at the time that it was too early “for many women to have made a mark in the higher echelons but this will come without doubt.”

Whether you agree it was too early or not for women to have made their mark, I think we can all agree that it’s time we started telling the stories of our female peers who have helped shape chemical engineering.

So, our project will be seeking out the best stories (not necessarily the most world-shattering discoveries) about our female forerunners in various aspects of chemical engineering research.

We would be delighted to hear of any suggestions which members might have. Please email your suggestions to:

Article By

Raffaella Ocone CEng FIChemE

Professor of Chemical Engineering at Heriot-Watt University

Nina Baker

Independent engineering historian

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.