Women in Glasshouses: Women in Science

This entry in the Women in Glasshouses blog series comes from Nancy Magrath, a former reference librarian at the Rakow Research Library.

Corning Glass Works built its first dedicated laboratory building in 1913 and hired Dr. Jesse T. Littleton, a physics professor from the University of Michigan, to head a physical lab. They were looking for the “next big hit” and felt more physicists would help develop their new glasses into what would become the major hit, Pyrex® Glass!

Evelyn Roberts, 1915, Senior Photo, University of Michigan Yearbook. Photo: Courtesy of HathiTrust.

Enter Evelyn Hortense Roberts (1893–1991), a University of Michigan math graduate. Beginning in 1917, Roberts worked in the Littleton lab where she did extensive testing on Pyrex Glass properties. Littleton and Roberts published their research findings in an article, “A Method for Determining the Annealing Temperature of Glass” in the Journal of the Optical Society of America. An image of Roberts testing thermal endurance by pouring boiling water on a Pyrex Glass dish resting on a block of ice has become iconic. Roberts returned to Michigan in 1920 to complete her master’s degree in Physics, only the third woman to earn that degree at the university. Roberts had a long and diverse career working in consumer product-related industries from Washington state to New York.

At the beginning of the 20th century, women such as Roberts were determined, strong, and talented. The lasting effects of World Wars I and II created cracks in the proverbial glass ceilings, which gave more women an opportunity to join the ranks of male scientists in academia and industry. Roberts was followed by other women scientists who made significant contributions to early Corning Glass Works research. You will find a few of these women included in the Glass Heroes section of the Corning Incorporated website.

Florence Fenwick, 1917, Senior Photo, University of Michigan Yearbook. Photo: Courtesy of HathiTrust.

A fellow University of Michigan alum, Florence Fenwick (1894–1936), joined Roberts at the Corning Glass Works lab from 1918–1919.  After a single year at Corning, Fenwick returned to the University to complete her chemistry Ph.D. Fenwick, despite her short career, made significant contributions to her field. She was awarded two National Research Fellowships in chemistry, the first woman to receive the grant. Her later research work at US Steel focused on surface films. She is listed in the 1933 American Men of Science and remembered through a chemistry graduate student fellowship established in her name at the University of Michigan.

In 1939, World War II further opened the window for the next generation of women scientists.

Women like Mary Purcell Roche (1917–2011). Roche received her M.S. in biochemistry from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1940 and worked in various research labs after completing her degree. But her goal was always to work in her hometown of Corning and she was determined to work at Corning Glass Works. With her specialized skills and some support from Jesse Littleton, she got the research job she wanted in 1943. She worked in Dr. Frank Hyde’s lab researching silicones, which were critical for use in the war efforts. Roche also worked on optical waveguides. In each of her research roles, she was the only woman in the lab. Despite her unique status, Roche commented in a later interview that she was treated as a valued colleague by her male counterparts. She left Corning Glass Works after six years and finished her career teaching chemistry in local high schools and at Corning Community College.

Mary Purcell Roche, biochemist, with J. Franklin Hyde, Corning’s first organic chemist, working to discover commercial versions of silicon compounds. Photo: Courtesy of the Corning Incorporated Department of Archives & Records Management, Corning, NY.

One year before Roche left Corning to pursue her teaching career, Daphne Land Rothermel (1915–1995) joined Corning Glass Works as a biochemist with an M.S. from the University of Pittsburgh. Rothermel was well traveled and came to Corning from a previous position as a research associate conducting medical studies on uranium exposure for the Manhattan Project at the University of Rochester. Born in England, Rothermel had lived in several European and U.S. cities and was fluent in multiple languages. Colleagues relied upon her language skills and her breadth of everyday useful “nickel knowledge.” At Corning, she worked with Dr. S. Donald Stookey on the durability of glass and glass-ceramics for products such as Corning Ware, Centura, and Corelle. Strengthening glass through ion exchange was the focus of her research. Rothermel is included in the 1963 edition of Who’s Who of American Women and authored several patents and technical papers. She worked in Corning’s labs for over 37 years, while raising five daughters and contributing to many community organizations.

Like Rothermel, Ellen Lunn Mochel (1914–1984), the first woman Ph.D. hired by Corning, worked on the ion exchange process. Mochel earned her doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Louisville in 1955, one of the first women to be awarded the degree. Like Rothermel, Mochel concentrated her research on strengthening glass, developing glass so strong it could be bent and twisted and was used for space capsule windows. She received four patents for her work on chemical strengthening. Similar technology, though significantly improved, is still being utilized at Corning Incorporated with the Corning® Gorilla® Glass products. As Roche had done before her, Mochel left Corning Glass Works to return to the teaching field she loved, the third of four generations of teachers in her family.

Eugene Sullivan Research Laboratories. Research teams from 1957 that included women are shown in this photograph taken from the building’s roof and used in 1957 ads for Pyroceram®. Photo: Courtesy of the Corning Incorporated Department of Archives & Records Management, Corning, NY.

These remarkable scientists were true pioneers. They were firsts in many areas: education, careers, science, and research, while often balancing professional careers with family life.  In their journeys through the academic halls and in the labs of Corning, their paths were remarkably similar, and even, at times, intersected.   Although not well-documented,  these and other early women in glass science proved their value in fundamental and product research. Their contributions continue to benefit science and society, and the many women who have followed in their paths creating strong glass while shattering glass ceilings.

Thank you to the following people who kindly shared information and personal remembrances for this article: Glenn Kohnke, Julia Bourg, the Rothermel Family, the Roche Family, and Corning Incorporated Department of Archives & Records Management.

Further reading:

This blog is part of a bi-weekly series called Women in Glasshouses; a discovery and celebration of the many ways that women have contributed to the glass industry in the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment. To read the previous entry on women working in the field of flameworking, please click here. The next in the series will focus on Lucy Maltby, the founder of the Pyrex test kitchen at Corning Glass Works.

3 comments » Write a comment

  1. Fantastic article celebrating some brilliant women who contributed significantly to Corning’s remarkable history in research and development and so many important innovations. It’s terrific to read this in celebration of the women who fought so hard to earn the right to vote! Thank you!

  2. An excellent job, Nancy. Corning owes so much to these smart women who contributed to Corning’s scientific research and innovative products. Congratulations!

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