The Remarkable Life and Work of Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898–1979) - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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The Remarkable Life and Work of Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898–1979)

Katharine Burr Blodgett was born on January 10, 1898, and lived a privileged, but not necessarily carefree, childhood. The family had employed servants in their original Schenectady home, which was located in the historic Stockade district. Following her husband’s death, Mrs. Blodgett moved with the children to New York City where they lived for 3 years. Mrs. Blodgett believed there would be greater opportunities in a big city than in a smaller town like Schenectady. According to her aunt, Katharine was already reading at age two.

A Young Scientist’s Education: Bryn Mawr Years

In the autumn of 1913, Katharine enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia. The college was prominent among women’s liberal arts colleges and had been founded in 1885 as “an institution of learning for the advanced education of women which should afford them ‘all the advantages of a college education that are so freely offered to young men.’” One of the policies instituted by the college trustees was “to organize no department in which they could not provide for graduate as well as undergraduate study,” indicating that the faculty had advanced degrees.

Of the 10 science and mathematics faculty, 3 were women and all had doctoral degrees. According to the Bryn Mawr College Calendar for 1913, chemistry instruction was under the direction of Dr. Frederick H. Getman, Dr. Roger F. Brunel, and Dr. Annie L. Macleod, who was in charge of demonstrations. Physics instruction was under the direction of Dr. William B. Huff, Dr. James Barnes, and Miss Mable K. Frehafer, who was in charge of demonstrations.

Katharine, now a “Mawrter,” was especially drawn to the courses taught by Professors Charlotte Scott and James Barnes, in mathematics and physics, respectively. It was with Barnes that she studied optics, a subject that she would continue to develop throughout her career. Barnes also suggested that she continue in science after her college degree.

On campus, Katharine took on a number of leadership roles including treasurer and secretary of the Science Club, treasurer of the Christian Association, and manager of track meets, in addition to her participation in athletic activities like swimming, water polo, and hockey. She was also known, along with her mates from the Class of 1917, as somewhat of a prankster!

During this period, as the Great War raged in Europe, the United States made preparations to enter the conflict in the spring of 1917. Indeed, the College’s publications at that time reflected wartime concerns, including calls for students to participate in activities related to national defense.

A Wartime Master’s Degree

In the fall of 1917, Katharine traveled to the Midwest to enter a master’s degree program in physics at the University of Chicago (UC). There, in the Ryerson Physical Laboratory, she carried out research under the direction of a young faculty member, Professor Harvey Brace Lemon. Lemon was conducting research on the use of charcoal for the adsorption of gases, a project aimed at improving the efficacy of gas masks. This work was performed in cooperation with the government’s Chemical Warfare Service.

The First World War came to be known as the Chemists’ War, in part because of the harmful or incapacitating lethal gases—including tear gases, chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene, and mustard gas—that were deployed on the battlefield. Although early WWI masks were treated with sodium thiosulfate to neutralize chlorine gas, “the crude personal protection devices gave way to more advanced masks that were connected to a canister filled with activated charcoal to filter poison gases.”

Katharine completed her degree in the spring of 1918, just months before Professor Lemon was commissioned as a captain in the Army’s Ordnance Department. Her newly gained knowledge of surface phenomena, adsorption, and physical measurements would prove useful for her subsequent work at GE.

The June 1919 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine, under the headline, “Gas Mask Work at the University,” stated that “Now that the censorship on scientific work connected with war problems is being lifted it becomes possible to announce the publication of work done on our campus which has heretofore been known only by rumor.” Blodgett’s papers on charcoal adsorption were published in 1919, once they had been approved for release by the director of the Chemical Warfare Service at the end of the war.

Read the full chapter.

 This post is an excerpt from The Remarkable Life and Work of Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898–1979)‘, The Posthumous Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Volume 2. Ladies in Waiting for the Nobel Prize.
Chapter Author: Margaret E. Schott
Volume Editors: Vera V. Mainz, E. Thomas Strom
Publication Date (Web): December 14, 2018
Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

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