Do you know about the woman who saved the American space program? How about the woman who helped advance the treatment of leprosy? Can you name the first American woman to ever receive a Ph.D. in Chemistry? Their accomplishments were nearly lost to history, but now, Reactions celebrates some of the great unsung women of chemistry. (Legends intro splash) In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik. When the first pings of that Soviet satellite were heard in the U.S., scientists went into overdrive. At the time, most American rockets were still exploding on the Launchpad at the time. And if they made it into the air, they didn’t have enough power to get into orbit. The answer to our power problem was better fuel, and that’s exactly where Mary Sherman Morgan comes in. Mary worked at North American Aviation, the company tasked with finding a better rocket fuel. She was the only woman out of 900 scientists working at North American Aviation, and the only one without a college degree. Mary and her team delivered a new propellant cocktail called “hydyne” to power the army’s Jupiter C rocket, which was developed by the much more-famous Wernher Von Braun. On January 31, 1958 the Jupiter C with the help of hydyne – delivered America’s first satellite to space. Dubbed Explorer I, the satellite’s successful launch was just the boost the American space program needed. Without Mary, the U.S. would have continued to trail behind the USSR in the space race. Mary’s work was top secret, and she kept it that way. She was also fiercely private, and her accomplishments were lost among a litany of other amazing space achievements since. When she died, her son George sat down with some of her former North American Aviation colleagues. One leaned over and said “your mom single-handedly saved America’s space program. And nobody knows it but a handful of old men.” Decades before Mary Sherman Morgan was working at the chemist’s bench, Alice Ball was working on a better treatment for a very old disease- Leprosy. In 1873, we learn thanks
to Dr. Gerhard Hansen, that leprosy was caused by a bacteria. We knew the cause’ and now we needed a better treatment. At the time the best treatment for leprosy, was injections of Chaulmoogra nut oil. But the results were spotty, the side effects were unpleasant and the injections were painful. Despite all of this – scientists and physicians kept coming back to chaulmoogra nut oil. Something in it seemed to help some patients. But what was it? That’s where Alice comes in. Alice was a wiz at natural products chemistry, just the kind of work that was needed on Chaulmoogra nut oil. By early 1916, she’d cracked it. She developed a process to isolate the active constituents of Chaulmoogra nut oil, which were fatty acids, in the form of ethyl esters. Injection of these ethyl esters provided more effective relief of leprosy symptoms with considerably less pain and discomfort than shots of the oil. The new treatment was used
for decades afterwards. Sadly, 1916 would also see the end of Alice’s all-to-brief career in chemistry. On New Years Eve, at just 24-years-old, Alice died. She never got to see the impact her
work had on the treatment of leprosy. And for long time, Alice never got credit. After her death, another chemist at the college continued her project, but published without any mention of her or her previous work. It was decades before the extent of
Alice’s contributions were recognized. Almost 90 years after her death, Alice Ball was awarded the University of Hawaii’s Regents’ Medal of Distinction. Finally, I want to shout out an exceptional woman from my alma mater, University of Nebraska Lincoln. Rachel Lloyd was a woman of “firsts”. In the 1881, she was the first woman to publish research in a major
American chemistry journal. In 1887, she was the first American and the second woman in the entire world to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry. That same year, Dr. Lloyd became one of the first female professors at a co-ed institution, U-N-L. Not everyone was thrilled to have her there. Just a year after her arrival, Dr. Lloyd survived an attempt by the chancellor to get rid of her – allegedly
because of her Quaker religion. But the UNL faculty supported Dr. Lloyd with a vote of confidence. Months later, the chancellor was gone and Dr. Lloyd was promoted to full professor. At UNL, Dr. Lloyd’s research helped sugar beets become a major Nebraska crop and made sugar production a viable industry in the state. Today, Nebraska is 6th in the nation for sugar beet production – an industry that brings in millions to the state economy. You’d think Dr. Lloyd’s life story and professional achievements would be better known, but details were nearly lost to history. Thankfully, due to a time capsule unearthed at UNL last year, we know more about Dr. Lloyd’s pioneering work. We need pioneers like Mary Sherman Morgan, Alice Ball, and Dr. Rachel Lloyd – explorers with grit and determination, though these three didn’t always get the glory. Like, subscribe and share. And don’t forget to check out our
other Legends of Chemistry videos: Accidental Discoveries That Changed the World and Tricking the Nazis and Transforming Medicine.