Women chemists are important inventors, creating a range of consumer products, materials, and medicines that never would have seen the light of day without their efforts. February 11 is the U.N.’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, but it also happens to be National Inventor’s Day. Celebrate both by learning about 10 inventions you can attribute to women chemists.
Wash-and-wear cotton fabric
Cellulose expert Ruth Benerito was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture when she discovered a cross-linking process that strengthened the bonds between cotton’s chainlike cellulose molecules, leading to a reduction in wrinkles when washed. Her research also paved the way for the development of flame-retardant fabric. Over her career, she amassed 55 patents and more than 200 publications.
Physicist and chemist Katharine B. Blodgett was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge and the first woman with a doctorate to work at General Electric. While there, she worked with Irving Langmuir to single-molecule surface layers, now known as Langmuir-Blodgett films. These layers are essential to creating all kinds of coatings, membranes, sensors, and electronic devices, including non-reflective glass. But while Langmuir won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery in 1932, Blodgett never received that honor.
Rachel Fuller Brown created the first antibiotic that was effective against fungal diseases in humans, working in collaboration with microbiologist Elizabeth Lee Hazen. This feat earned Brown a spot in the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame. Although the royalties on the drug could have made both women millionaires several times over, they donated it all to charitable causes, included funding scientific research.
Anti-Leukemia Drugs / Azisothymidine (AZT)
Gertrude B. Elion opted not to complete her doctorate in the 1940s because it would have interfered with her research alongside colleague George Hitchings. She went on to publish 225 papers, and her work led to treatments for leukemia, as well as the important AIDS medication azisothymidine, also known as AZT. She won a share of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries of important principles for drug treatment.”
Molecular sieves / Synthetic emeralds
Edith M. Flanigen is better known for her work in molecular sieves, including zeolite Y, which was used to improve oil refining. This won her the Perkin Medal in 1992, the first woman ever to do so. Along the way, she secured 108 patents, including a hydrothermal process for creating synthetic emeralds for use in both industry and jewelry.
Diagnostic test strips
Helen M. Free developed inexpensive, easy to administer at-home tests for diabetes and other illness, alongside her husband, Alfred Free. The test, a strip of paper that changed color when dipped in urine, was the first diagnostic test that could be administered at home or in a doctor’s office without the need for expensive lab equipment. She received the Garvan Medal from ACS, honoring distinguished service to chemistry by a woman, in 1980 and served as president of the ACS in 1993. In 1995, ACS named an award after her: the Helen M. Free Award in Public Outreach.
Portable optical biosensors
Frances Ligler developed automated biosensors for use in the field while working for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. These sensors were capable of detecting things like pathogens, toxins, pollutants, and explosives. Her sensors were used to detect anthrax and botulinum toxin during Operation Desert Storm, and her group developed the underlying technology for the RAPTOR portable, automated biosensor. These sensors have been used by the U.S. Navy to test water, and by NATO to analyze biological toxins and pathogens. She is currently an Associate Editor of Analytical Chemistry.
Stephanie Louise Kwolek was working at DuPont when she discovered a method for creating synthetic fibers that were stronger than steel and lighter than fiberglass. That fiber became known to the world as Kevlar® and was used to save lives as the lining in bullet-proof vests — though it has also been used in spacecraft, helmets, tennis racquets, tires, and protective gloves. Among her many honors, she won the Perkin Medal from the ACS in 1997.
Patsy O’Connell Sherman co-invented the stain and water repellant treatment ScotchgardTM while at 3M, a discovery that has been worth more than $300 million to the company. She and Samuel Smith were working on a fluorochemical rubber for jet fuel hoses when they noticed the substance repelled both water and oily liquids. Seeing the potential in the material, they teamed up to develop a series of stain repellants for a variety of fabrics, culminating in ScotchgardTM.
Cardiovascular drugs Cozaar® and Eliquis®
Ruth Wexler has made a mark on the field of cardiovascular drugs, with the development of Cozaar®, an angiotensin II receptor antagonist, as well as Eliquis®, a factor Xa inhibitor and novel anticoagulant. She has more than 190 papers and patents to her name, with more on the way as she continues to work as an Executive Director at Bristol-Myers Squibb, leading their medicinal chemistry efforts directed at cardiovascular diseases. In 2014 she was inducted into the ACS Division of Medicinal Chemistry’s MEDI Hall of Fame.