#WomensHistoryMonth: Female STEM Heroes of World War II

World War II proved an age of female empowerment on the homefront, as women kept the world running by stepping up to fill both jobs and societal roles traditionally held by men while the men were off at war. The same principle held true for education, and ISU (Iowa State College at the time) was not the only co-ed college in the country where female students temporarily outnumbered their male counterparts. The majority of these women still veered towards liberal arts and home economics majors, but a large number also waded into the hard sciences. Many of them discovered that they possessed an untapped talent for STEM research. Below are a handful of examples.


 

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Senior Portrait of Beatrice Bruner. Bomb Yearbook 1941, pg. 48

Beatrice Bruner Dowd (1924-1998), a native of Rolfe, Iowa, graduated from Iowa State College with her B.S. in Mathematics in 1941. She was very active in clubs and societies, and she also saved a great deal of correspondence from her time in school, where it appears she was well-loved and had many friends.

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Letter from a college friend. RS 21/7/117 Box 5, Folder 7

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Letter from a college friend. RS 21/7/117 Box 5, Folder 7.

Such letters are always interesting to peruse, because they reveal glimpses of life on campus at the time, above and beyond the education and career of the individual. Price changes in particular catch my attention. For example, did you know that Beatrice paid only a $5.00 deposit on her dorm room in 1940? With inflation taken into account, that’s about $90 in today’s currency. And one of her friends wrote that she was worried about having already spent $0.20 (equivalent to about $3.60 today) at the Union for her meals that morning – that it was so difficult to keep one’s daily expenses under $0.60 (about $10.80 today).

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Room Deposit Slip. RS 21/7/117 Box 5, Folder 7.

It is unclear who, if anyone, might have encouraged Beatrice to pursue mathematics, but her college friends’ letters reference her aptitude in STEM subjects, particularly physics, several times.

In 1943, after graduation, Beatrice joined the Navy, whereupon she was assigned to study meteorology at the University of California at Los Angeles so she could work as a Naval Weather Forecaster. Her papers contain her notes (and some doodles) from various courses she took at UCLA.

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Beatrice’s notes from a course on tropical meteorology. RS 21/7/117 Box 3, Folder 15.

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It is unclear why Dowd saved this amusing doodle on her weather maps from school, or whether she or a friend drew it. But it is certainly unique. RS 21/7/117 Box 3, Folder 15.

Her papers also include procedural documents and training materials from the Navy. Some of these employ humor as a memory aid, as is the case with the cartoons below. Researchers who would like to peruse the full collection of training cartoons, however, should be aware that some of these contain racist depictions of Japanese military personnel. 

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United States Naval Training Division’s Humorous Training Cards and Famous Last Lines. RS 21/7/117 Box 3, Folder 16.

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United States Naval Training Division’s Humorous Training Cards and Famous Last Lines. RS 21/7/117 Box 3, Folder 16.

After the war, Beatrice worked for a company called Sylvania Electronic Products (later known as GTE Government Systems), where she eventually became the Engineering Department Manager before retiring in 1986. Curiously, she also belonged to a group known as the Association of Old Crows (AOC), begun in the 1960s by veterans who had worked as Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) officers in World War II, disrupting enemy communications and radars. The group exists to this day, creating symposiums and journals to educate the public about electronic warfare.

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Association of Old Crows Certificate. RS 21/7/117 Box 8.


 

Hilda S. White (1953-1997) received her Ph.D. from Iowa State after earning her bachelors in Chemistry from Bethany College, West Virginia, in 1942.

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Excerpt from an autobiographical note by Hilda S. White. RS 21/7/109 Box 1, Folder 2.

While a grad student at Iowa State, she met her future husband, Phil White, who went on to earn his D.Sc. at Harvard, where both he and Hilda were employed as biochemists in the Department of Food and Nutrition for about two years.

Immediately following this, Phil’s program at Harvard sent him to Lima, Peru to perform analysis on food consumption in that country, and Hilda accompanied him. It is unclear precisely what her role in the expedition was, as even her own subsequent write-up of the trip centers around her husband’s job and paints her own experience primarily as that of a housewife, referencing the birth of her first child (which would undoubtedly have consumed much of her time!).

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Excerpt from a report on her time in Peru. RS 21/7/109 Box 1, Folder 1.

But she was also, it seems, performing research connected to the project simultaneously, publishing papers in professional journals, and receiving her own salary from Harvard.

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Research published during Phil and Hilda’s time in Peru. RS 21/7/109 Box 1, Folder 1.

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Research published during Phil and Hilda’s time in Peru. RS 21/7/109 Box 1, Folder 1.

When they returned home in 1953, Phil joined the staff of the American Medical Association in Chicago. The chair of the organization was in the process of looking for a qualified candidate to teach Nutrition at the Home Economics department for Northwestern University at the time, and Phil recommended Hilda, who got the job. She taught there until 1973, when the department dissolved.

While at Northwestern, Hilda continued to perform and publish research, this time on “Inorganic Elements in Weighed Diets of Girls and Young Women” and “Utilization of Inorganic Elements by Young Women Eating Iron-Fortified Foods.” She eventually went on to work at the Chicago Nutrition Association and the journal board of the American Dietetic Association.

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Excerpt from Hilda S. White’s published research. RS 21/7/109 Box 1, Folder 1.

Although her the status of her work was so frequently downplayed in favor of her husband’s, it is clear that she made major contributions to her field in her own right.


 

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Undergraduate Senior Portrait of Darleane Christian. Bomb Yearbook 1948, pg. 24.

Darleane C. Hoffman (1947-2011), nuclear chemist, might be the most well-known of the alumni featured in this post.

She received both of her degrees from ISU: a B.S. in Chemistry in 1948 and a Ph.D. in Physical (Nuclear) Chemistry in 1951. Her biographical web page for the Women in Technology Hall of Fame (WITI), into which she was inducted in 2000, notes that she had not originally intended to study science at all. She had arrived at Iowa State intending to pursue a career as a commercial artist. However, according to the write-up, the influence of an unnamed female professor in one of her freshman courses peaked her interest in STEM fields, and she decided to switch her focus to chemistry.

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Darleane’s notes from Chemistry 512 – Advanced Quantitiative Analysis, a class she took in the Spring of 1949. RS 21/7/100 Box 13, Folder 3.

After graduating with a specialization in nuclear and radiochemistry (interests which would later make her famous), she applied for a job with the radiochemistry group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory only to be told, “We don’t hire women in that division.” Perhaps simply to prove she could, she continued applying to this institute until she landed a position in their Isotope and Nuclear Chemistry division, where she quickly took on leadership roles and worked for 30 years.

During this period of her life, in the 1960s, she also raised two children and would reportedly return to work each night after putting the children to bed.

In the 1970s, while serving as the Division Leader for the Isotope and Nuclear Chemistry division, Darleane discovered a naturally-occurring form of an element called plutonium-244, which scientists had previously believed to be a manufactured substance that existed only in laboratories.

Her group also performed the world’s first aqueous chemistry on hathnium, element 105, around this time.

And these discoveries led to even more innovation once she had accepted a professorship at University of California Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry. In collaboration with European scientists, the groups she led at UCLA discovered the first super-heavy elements, 118, 116, and 114. These became the focal point of her studies in later years.

Among other honors, Darleane received the University of California Berkeley Citation of Merit in 1996, the President’s National Medal of Science in 1997, and the Priestley Medal (the highest honor conferred by the American Chemical Society) in 2000.

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Ephemera surrounding Hoffman’s reception of the National Medal of Science in 1997. RS 21/7/100 Box 17, Folder 8.


 

We are immensely proud of these alumni here at ISU, and we hope their stories will inspire current students. If you would like to learn more about any of these scientists, feel free to visit the archives and browse through their papers.

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Poster. RS 21/7/100 Box 1, Folder 1.


Girl Power in Engineering #TBT

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Curtiss-Wright Cadettes welding, circa 1943. University Photographs, RS 13/16/F, Box 1110

In a time when the majority of women at Iowa State studied Home Economics (which, for the record, is a perfectly fine subject to study), there was a group of 100 women working to earn an engineering certificate. The program was the Curtiss-Wright Engineering Cadettes Program, which was established during World War II at several universities in the U.S., sponsored by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. The curriculum included training in drafting, stress analysis, materials lab, aerodynamics, and production liaison. The goal of this was to train women to serve as assistants to engineers, so the engineers could accomplish more in less time. Obviously, there was still a long way to go regarding women’s educational and career opportunities, but they likely helped paved the way for women to become full engineers.

For more examples of women in science and engineering, check out our WISE collections!

 


Collection highlight: L. H. (Lois Hattery) Tiffany Papers

Lois Hattery Tiffany was born on this day, March 8, in 1924, in Collins, Iowa. She received her B.S. (1945), M.S. (1947), and Ph.D. (1950) in plant pathology all from Iowa State College (University). She joined the Botany faculty at Iowa State as an Instructor (1950-1956). Tiffany was promoted to Assistant Professor (1956-1958), Associate Professor (1958- 1965), Professor (1965-1994), and Distinguished Professor (1994-2002). She also served as Chair (1990-1996) of the Botany Department. She retired from the department in 2002 and was named Emeritus Distinguished Professor.

Lois Tiffany (University Photographs box 1036)

Lois Tiffany (University Photographs box 1036)

Tiffany, informally known as “The Mushroom Lady,” taught mycology and botany classes at both Iowa State University and the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. Her research included studies of fungal diseases of native prairie plants in Iowa, a 10-year survey of Iowa’s morels, and a study of the fungus flora of Big Bend National Park in Texas. She also participated in the Midwestern mushroom aflatoxin studies of both corn and soybeans. Her continuing commitment to research led to the naming of an Iowa truffle in her honor. The fungus, named Mattirolomyces tiffanyae, was discovered in 1998 in several locations of Story County’s oak woods.

 

Tiffany also made great advancements for the place of women in the sciences despite the challenges of sexism in the early years of her career. She was the first woman president of the Iowa Academy of Science, the first woman president of the Osborn Club, and the first woman scientist in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to be awarded the title of Distinguished Professor.

Botanical specimen container used by Lois Tiffany (Artifact collection 2011-197.01)

Botanical specimen container used by Lois Tiffany (Artifact collection 2011-197.01)

Read more about Lois Tiffany in the Ecological Society of America’s recent blog post. We hold her papers here in the University Archives.


Émelie du Châtelet, Voltaire, and Newtonian physics: one woman’s contribution to Enlightenment thought

ISU Special Collections has added a new title to its Archives of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). The WISE Archives seeks to preserve the historical heritage of American women in science and engineering, and to complement it is a growing rare book collection. The newest addition is Institutions de physique by Gabrielle-Émelie Du Châtelet, a first edition of the work, published in 1740.

"Gabrielle du Châtelet (1706-1749)." Image courtesy of Mathematical Association of America, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

“Gabrielle du Châtelet (1706-1749)” by Mathematical Association of America is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Born Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1706-1749) in Paris to a family of minor French nobility, du Châtelet lived a colorful life. She was married at 18 to Florent Claude, marquis Du Châtelet, a military man who was frequently away from home for long periods of time, leaving her free to pursue her scientific interests.

1733 was an important year for du Châtelet for two reasons. First, it was the year she began studying advanced mathematics under Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and Alexis-Claude Clairaut, two prominent mathematicians and members of the French Academy of Sciences. Second, it was in that same year that she met the important French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who became her lover and lifelong companion. Significantly, considering du Châtelet’s later work, all three of these men were supporters of Newtonian physics, the legitimacy of which was considered questionable at that time in France, where the Establishment favored Cartesian physics.

Voltaire came under fire from the French authorities after the publication of his controversial work Lettres Philosophiques in 1734, which included a letter detailing Newton’s natural philosophy. With a warrant out for his arrest, Voltaire took refuge with du Châtelet at her husband’s estate of Cirey and lived there with her until her death. While at Cirey, Voltaire wrote another work on Newtonian physics, Elémens de la Philosophie de Neuton, published in 1738, with substantial help from du Châtelet.

Meanwhile, du Châtelet began work on her own contribution to Newtonian physics (and ISU’s recent acquisition), Institutions de Physique, published in 1740. This text provided a metaphysical basis for the natural philosophy of Newton, revealing her high-level understanding of math, and it is frequently regarded as a work of original and innovative thinking. The book was expanded in a second edition, published 1742.

Her other major work is a French translation of Newton’s Principia, including a 287-page commentary and mathematical addendum. Begun in 1745, it took four years to complete. During this time, she had begun a new love affair with the poet Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, after Voltaire had begun an affair with his niece Madame Denis in 1744. Discovering that she was pregnant in February 1749 at age 42, she expressed concern to a friend that she would not survive the pregnancy, and so by April she was working at the feverish rate of 17 hours a day to finish the mathematical addendum to her translation. She gave birth to a daughter on September 10, 1749, and died ten days later. Her daughter lived for only about eighteen months before also dying.

Special Collections is excited to acquire the work of this significant woman and Enlightenment thinker! Stop by to learn more about women’s contributions to science and engineering.